Cat Urbigkit: Winter Conditions Cause Rangeland Emergency In Southwest Wyoming

Columnist Cat Urbigkit writes: "High winds and frigid temperatures have caused an emergency on significant parts of Wyomings southwestern rangelands. Drifting snow has trapped cattle and sheep and prevented the animals from getting to adequate feed."

Cat Urbigkit

February 06, 20239 min read

Frozen cows 2 6 23 scaled
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Most Wyomingites know that this has been an exceptional winter in parts of the state, with heavy snows followed by high winds and frigid temperatures.

What most people don’t know, however, is that the conditions have caused an emergency on significant parts of Wyoming’s southwestern rangelands and neighboring portions of northern Colorado, Utah, and Idaho. Storms began hitting these lower elevation rangelands, including Wyoming’s Red Desert, in mid-November, bringing winter conditions to the desert range fully a month earlier than normal. The situation has worsened substantially as the region has been hit with severe conditions for the last two months.

Drifting snow has trapped cattle and sheep and prevented the animals from getting to adequate feed. County road departments and energy companies have had key roles in trying to keep roads open so that ranchers can get to their herds, but animals that were grazing away from roadways have been in significant jeopardy.

Across broad swathes of southwestern Wyoming, from Uinta to Carbon counties, and including portions of Lincoln, Sublette, Fremont and Natrona counties (and possibly a few others), ranchers have been busy the last few weeks in rescuing their livestock, including chartering helicopters and airplanes in attempt to locate stranded cattle or sheep. Many are engaged in emergency efforts to rescue their animals from desert rangelands along the checkerboard lands, a mixture of federal, state and private ownership.

While these ranches can usually winter herds and flocks with limited amounts of supplemental feed in most years, this winter’s prolonged snow at deep depths, combined with frigid temperatures and winds, have made that impossible in some areas. For weeks, ranchers have struggled to get to their herds and tend to them, and the conditions have become too treacherous in some areas for the safety of both man and beast.

I know of numerous cattle and sheep producers hiring dozers, snow plows and using other tracked vehicles to pack trails for these stranded animals to get them out to the safety of plowed roads. From there, the animals can be loaded onto semi-tractor trailers and hauled to home ranches or to alternative sites with less snow where they can be fed hay while reducing the risk of harm to the animals or the people tending to them. On private land, producers are also working to plow feedlines for their stock, and keeping trails into their stackyards open so they can move stored feed.

Livestock producers are trucking in additional (and expensive) hay from neighboring states, as well as loads of range cake for cattle and additional corn for sheep. Livestock haulers are busy, fighting bad conditions for loading and transporting animals, and trying to haul the livestock between storms when roads are passable.

It’s been a trying last few weeks, and the situation may only worsen in the coming weeks as remaining rangeland livestock deplete what feed they can currently access. More animals will need to be moved from the range if conditions continue to worsen. But at least this first few days of February have come with warmer temperatures.

What Happened

Winter conditions began hitting southwestern Wyoming’s rangelands fully a month earlier than usual, and things started getting serious in the desert by mid-December. A two-day storm dropped 13 inches of snow at Wamsutter by Dec. 14, followed by -25° to -30° temperatures from Wamsutter to Farson two days later. That storm was followed by record-breaking arctic air on Dec. 20-21, with blowing snow resulting in major impacts to roads throughout the state.

An extreme example of wild temperature conditions that week was documented in Casper by the National Weather Service when it found a 140-degree temperature change in 72 hours, and a 70-degree temperature change in only 22 hours. {The temperature went from 28° at 7: 40 a.m. on Dec. 21, to -42° at 5:40 a.m. on Dec. 22, and back up to 28° by Dec. 24 at 7:40 a.m.}

Christmastime came with howling winds, with Casper recording a peak gust of 71 miles per hour, 61 mph at Muddy Gap, 61 mph at Big Piney, and 45 mph in Rock Springs and Riverton. Another winter storm arrived in time for the New Year, dumping another 3 inches in Wamsutter, 16 inches at Big Sandy in Sublette County, and 17 inches in Casper. With blowing snow from Rock Springs to Casper, most of the state’s roads were impacted once again.

A few weeks later, Jan. 17-18, another storm brought an additional 5 inches of snow across the broad desert from Wamsutter to Casper, with even more snow measured in other locations. That snow was followed by another round of arctic temperatures, but with some relief as we’ve moved into February.

The National Weather Service in Riverton reported: “It was a very cold and snowy January. Lander and Riverton had their snowiest months, with Casper clocking it at 2nd snowiest.”  It was also the third wettest January on record for Big Piney.

For Rock Springs, it’s been colder than normal, with five times more below zero days so far this winter than last winter, and an average temperature of 17°, along with an average wind speed of almost 13 miles per hour. On Jan. 26, the highest wind speed was 46 mph, with gusts up to 56 mph. Those were tough days and nights for anything trying to survive on the range.

Possible Impacts

Livestock producers generally know how to alter their feeding strategies to get their livestock through changing winter conditions, but sudden diet alterations like shifting from rangeland grazing to being fed hay can cause health problems and upset to an animal’s gut microbes so this transition must be managed carefully. An additional concern is that many of these rangeland cows are in their final trimester of pregnancy.

Health effects to livestock from cold stress can be varied and severe, as was found after the 2013 Atlas blizzard that killed up to 30,000 cattle in eastern Wyoming and adjacent states. This report provides a good overview of impacts to cattle.

This winter, one Wyoming producer has already recorded the death of 100 sheep, and I’ve heard of other sheep that were suffocated while bedded in a roadway, trapped underneath a blanket of blowing snow one night. These severe conditions have also occurred during the breeding season for domestic sheep flocks, so conception rates are expected to be impacted.

I know a cattle producer who managed to get their cattle home only to have the death loss begin once the animals were on home ground. The cold stress and energy required to get the cows out was apparently just too much.

Wildlife Impacts

I’ve already heard of some pronghorn antelope deaths in southwestern Wyoming, and I’m sure that we’ll learn of other impacts to wildlife herds from state officials later. Deep snows hinder the animals’ ability to move around to feed in different areas, but wind-crusted snow can make it nearly impossible for the animals to dig down to the feed.

The Wyoming Game & Fish Department put out a press release last week noting the winter conditions and the possible impact to wildlife, quoting Pinedale Region Wildlife Supervisor John Lund “We’re not seeing significant mortality yet, but if winter conditions continue as is, we are likely to see above-average mortality for both mule deer and pronghorn.”

Colorado Parks & Wildlife issued a similar press release about wildlife in Routt County, and Colorado is already dealing with reported death loss to beef cattle, with more losses expected in the coming weeks due to the extreme stress, according to Beef magazine.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has implemented an emergency deer feeding program in northern Utah due to deep snow and poor deer condition. Specially designed pellets are being fed to mule deer at 11 locations in Rich County and one location in Summit County and may be expanded to other areas if needed.

“In the areas where we’re feeding, the vegetation that deer eat in the winter is completely covered by snow,” DWR Northern Region Wildlife Manager Jim Christensen said.

“Mule deer have evolved with harsh weather, and a few deer dying in years with severe weather is expected,” said DWR Big Game Coordinator Dax Magnus. “This natural cycle can actually benefit a deer population by removing sick animals and older animals that aren’t contributing to the population through reproduction. However, there are times and areas when winter weather is so severe that it becomes necessary to implement emergency feeding to protect adult does, which are the reproductive segment of the deer population. Even with emergency feeding, we still anticipate the loss of some fawns and sick or old animals.”

Idaho Department of Fish & Game officials have initiated a similar emergency feeding program for elk and deer in Bear Lake County in southeastern Idaho, and are meeting with its winter feeding advisory committee weekly to assess the situation.

“Winter conditions in the southeast corner of the region, specifically areas of Bear Lake, Caribou, and Franklin Counties, have been particularly severe in recent weeks,” the agency reported. “And in spite of feeding, we are still going to lose animals to starvation in those hardest hit areas of southeast Idaho.”

What To Do

Livestock producers who are impacted by these severe conditions should contact their local Farm Service Agency office to discuss their situation. Producers should also be documenting any losses as well as additional expenses resulting from these conditions.

Both the Colorado and Wyoming Wool Growers are working to update their state officials and congressional delegations about the emergency situation. Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon’s office and the Wyoming Department of Agriculture are working to provide coordination between the agencies and the states in assisting producers.

As for the public, if you see any livestock in the region that appear to be stranded or in distress, please report the specifics to the local sheriff’s department and/or Wyoming Livestock Board brand inspector.

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Cat Urbigkit

Public Lands and Wildlife Columnist