Despite living in Austin, I find that I still follow the Montana, Wyoming, and Dakota weather reports regularly. It’s an ingrained habit that I cannot break. This past Friday, despite enjoying lovely, autumnal weather in the mid-80s, many family and friends were hit hard by an early, heavy snow. Power went out, roads and highways were closed, trees cracked and roofs caved in from the weight they could not escape. Worst of all, ranchers could not get to their cattle. I’m now seeing photographs come in of cattle that were lost in the blowing snow, dead against fence lines. It’s hard to look forward to the sun coming out when you’re afraid of what you know you’ll find.

South Dakota Cattle Deaths (c) Eric In the Woods, 2013

South Dakota Cattle Deaths
(c) Eric In the Woods, 2013

Mother Nature is a real bitch.

After I finished my undergraduate degree, I joined the Peace Corps. I still remember my mother laughing hysterically when I received notice that I had been posted to Outer Mongolia, where I would teach English. A couple of years after I finished my work there, returning to the relative safety of graduate school and (gasp!) marriage, Mongolia suffered three consecutive zuds, which are extremely snowy winters in which livestock are unable to find enough food, and large numbers of animals die due to starvation and cold. For an economy and culture based on nomadic herding and wealth is often still determined by the amount of livestock you own, the results were devastating. By spring of 2010, it was determined that 8 million animals, or 17% of the country’s total livestock population, had died as a result of the winter storms.

Aftermath of the Mongolian Zud
Photo Credit

Two years ago, a horrific drought here in south-central Texas caused wildfires and already parched fields to lose any hope of grass. Cattlemen first culled herds, then culled even more, and finally just sent the remainder to market as there was no feed to be had. I watched photographers go for the easy shot of declining lake levels and weekend boaters having trouble finding water deep enough to be launch, but to me, the real story was of those dead fields and long lines at slaughterhouses. Ranching in this area has never fully recovered, and I doubt that it will. The specter of drought casts too long a shadow.

The point I’m trying to make is that ranching is a hard life, a personal life. There is much to love, but that love can often mean that losses cut all the more deeply. To all those who have lost cattle or are still determining just how bad their losses are, my heart breaks for you. Please know that you are not alone, that we bear that pain right along with you. A chinook will come.