Drought weighing on ranchers’ minds

The evening was full of pomp and circumstance, but the morning hours of the recent Southwestern Colorado Livestock Association’s annual gathering were marked by some serious agriculture policy talk.

Much of the discussion centered on drought. In short, 2012 was brutal.

Mike Preston, manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, called it the “driest year on record” since the district’s formation in 1961.

“We used every drop of allocated water,” he said, adding that Southwest Colorado began 2012 with a surplus of water from the previous year. Farmers and ranchers won’t have the same cushion in 2013.

“Reservoir levels are 1,000 feet lower than this time last year,” he said.

Despite recent storms bringing snowpack to near normal levels, San Juan National Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles cautioned soil that moisture was still very low.

Depending on precipitation levels the rest of winter and early spring, Stiles said ranchers could see a “later than normal range-readiness date” for grazing.

“The total season could be shorter,” he said.

Connie Clementson, manager of the BLM’s Tres Rios Field Office in Dolores, echoed Stiles’ concerns about drought.

“We could have problems if our moisture doesn’t stack up,” she said.

Ranchers who grazed land consumed by the 10,000-acre Weber Fire last summer will have to find greener pastures in the near term. Tom Rice, also with the Tres Rios office, said the charred land will take two or three years to recover.

The youngster suspected of starting the fire will go on trial in federal court in Durango this week, but the proceedings will be closed to the public to protect his or her identity as a minor.

Paul White, executive director of the Montezuma County Farm Service Agency, said dry weather accounted for a 60 percent loss of available grazing land in 2012 in Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties.

Sage grouse was another hot topic.

One month ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. If the grouse is granted endangered status, nearly 350,000 acres of Dolores, San Miguel and San Juan, Utah, counties will be designated as “critical habitat.”

The potential endangered classification hasn’t gone over well with the ranching community, which fears efforts to protect the grouse will impinge upon its property rights.