Tens of thousands of cattle perished in a freak snowstorm during the first weekend in October in Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota. That’s incredible, and yet the story is getting surprisingly little attention.
An unexpectedly early and brutal blizzard struck states from the Northern High Plains to the Rocky Mountains on October 4th and 5th, leaving up to five feet of snow on the ground. The storm’s howling winds proved to be a death knell for an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 defenseless cattle.
First the poor creatures were pelted with rain, 12 hours of it, until their coats were waterlogged. Then came 48 hours of snow, 60 to 70 mph winds and freezing temperatures. Cattle wandered, cold, wet, covered with ice and confused. They huddled together at fence lines for warmth. Snow drifted to heights of 10 feet or more. Eventually, the cattle dropped where they stood, by the thousands, and the snow buried them.
In the aftermath, bodies were everywhere. Black hooves and legs stuck up out of the snow, grotesquely marking the spots where cows and calves finally collapsed and froze to death.
“They’re in the fence line, laying alongside the roads,” Martha Wierzbicki, emergency management director for Butte County, S.D., told the Billings Gazette. “It’s really sickening.”
The unfortunate cows were ill-equipped to face this sudden snow because they hadn’t grown their winter coats yet. Compounding the problem, the weather’s been good recently, so ranchers hadn’t yet moved the cattle to their wintertime grazing locations which tend to have more gullies and trees. The cows were still in their open, flat summer pastures at this time of year, which is normally as it should be.
Heavy, sustained blizzards during the first week of October just don’t happen in South Dakota and Wyoming. Only days earlier, temperatures had been in the 80s. The odd weather, dubbed “Winter Storm Atlas,” caught ranchers flatfooted.
It’s not that they didn’t want to take care of their cattle. They did — those animals are their livelihood, after all. This storm was a record-breaker, however. It defied weather predictions and hit with unexpected force and longevity. Ranchers simply didn’t have time to move their cattle to more protected areas.
“It’s bad. It’s really bad. I’m the eternal optimist and this is really bad,” 60-year-old rancher Gary Cammack told the Associated Press. “The livestock loss is just catastrophic…. It’s pretty unbelievable. It’s the worst early season snowstorm I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
See news coverage about the deaths of these cattle here:
“It’s not uncommon at this point to find cattle that are five miles from where they should be,” rancher David Uhrig told the Billings Gazette. “Which doesn’t seem like a lot, but to drift five miles in a storm — that’s a lot.”
The devastation affects approximately 6,000 ranching operations. Some ranchers have yet to find any of their cattle alive, according to reports. Experts are calling it South Dakota’s worst economic crisis in decades. Sadly, many of these cows had just been brought to this area from Texas to escape drought conditions there.
With the federal government in shutdown mode, the problem is made infinitely worse. The employees of federal agencies which the affected ranchers would turn to for information and advice are furloughed. They want to help but they can’t.
It’s worth noting that some federal workers were allowed to do their jobs during this epic snowstorm, and did so admirably. When roads became impassible, dedicated employees of the National Weather Service in Rapid City, S.D., actually hiked to work in the blizzard. They remained at their office around the clock for the entire weekend in order to get lifesaving weather information out to the public. Of course, they weren’t being paid at the time and still aren’t.
In the absence of federal government help in this crisis, all the ranchers can do for the moment is sort out whose cattle are whose and get the carcasses disposed of before they rot where they lie.
Some wonder whether the arrival of a storm this catastrophic so early in the season is yet another red flag waving frantically to alert us that climate change is real and is happening all around us. For example, ClimateCentral.com indicates in a response to a comment about this snowstorm, “[U]nusually heavy snowstorms like this one, which broke all-time records, are not inconsistent with what we’re already seeing due to manmade global warming—increased extreme precip events.”
This bizarre weather incident may simply be an aberration. Odd things happen, after all. On the other hand, last year at this time, South Dakota was worried about drought conditions.
Could Winter Storm Atlas be yet another symptom of the inexorable advance of climate change? Is wacky, unpredictable killer weather becoming more and more common, or are we just noticing it more these days?
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