PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — For weeks, rancher Darrel Holliday has rounded up frightened cows and calves off the smoldering hills of the Strawberry Mountain Range, a wilderness area in eastern Oregon of old-growth forest and grass where wildlife and cattle roamed.
Holliday’s entire federal forest grazing allotment of about 32,000 acres — 50 square miles — burned last month as a wildfire ravaged the area. The land is now a smoke-filled expanse of blackened tree sticks and ash a foot and half deep.
“We’re picking up cows that should have calves with no calves. We assume they might have died out there,” said Holliday, who is still missing 22 of his 180 cow-calf pairs. He’s among dozens of ranchers similarly wrestling with the loss of animals and grazing land in a region where cattle production is one of the leading agricultural industries.
The vast majority of the 1.6 million acres — nearly 2,600 square miles — that burned in Oregon, Idaho and Washington this year are federally owned, data show, with large swaths of that public land used as rangeland for livestock grazing.
Many of Holliday’s recovered animals have burnt hooves or are lame from walking on hot coals, he said. Miles of fences have burned. And the land, for which Holliday pays a fee, will likely be closed to grazing for at least two years while it recovers, he said.
That’s left him scrambling to figure out how to feed the cows.
“We’ve been ranching here all our lives,” said Holliday, whose father started grazing cattle in the area in 1942. “To watch it totally destroyed, you get sick to your stomach every day you go out there.”
In Oregon’s Canyon Creek Complex alone, 125 of the 170 square miles burned were grazing allotments, said Malheur National Forest rangeland management specialist Nick Stiner. Some 4,000 cows ranged on those allotments, he said.
And in the Soda Fire in southwest Idaho, that state’s biggest fire this year, 280 of the 430 square miles burned were federal grazing allotments and another 75 square miles were private grazing lands, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
In addition to rangeland lost, ranchers and ranching groups say hundreds of cows have perished and millions of dollars’ worth of hay stacks and barns has gone up in flames.
“We’re hearing lots of reports of displaced cattle and grazing grounds that are no longer usable,” said Kayli Hanley of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, which says many ranchers are still assessing damage and looking for lost cows.
In northern Washington state, where the Okanogan Complex burned about 475 square miles and is considered the largest wildfire in state history, rancher Doug Grumbach found the burned carcasses of several cows on a hill among smoldering trees.
One of those cows became wedged between two trees trying to flee the flames.
When the fire started last month, the fourth-generation rancher was on his way to move the cows dispersed in the mountainous terrain. But, he said, the winds picked up and the fire exploded, so “we had to get ourselves out of there.”
In total, eight of his cows and four calves died and 20 are still unaccounted for — a loss of tens of thousands of dollars. He’s also treating calves and cows with burnt feet, severe body burns and respiratory problems.
“They’re kind of like family ... you care for them all their life, so you hate for anything to happen to them,” he said.
Grumbach said he doesn’t have enough unburned private land to feed his cattle; his cows are now eating hay meant for winter feed. And because of the drought, he doesn’t have as much hay as usual, he said.
Many ranchers like Grumbach are desperately looking for pastures and hay, said Wyatt Prescott of the Idaho Cattle Association. Those who can’t afford feed, he said, are sending their animals to sale yards.
“Producers spend generations developing the genetics of their cows to produce the best beef. Liquidating part of their herd is something they try to avoid at all costs,” Prescott said.
His group is facilitating a confidential online pasture exchange where farmers who have land out of production can lease it to those who lost their grazing grounds.
Idaho rancher Brenda Richards, who runs about 500 cow-calf pairs, lost 95 percent of her grazing allotment to the Soda Fire.
“Ranching is the strength of these local communities, that’s our tax base,” Richards said, adding that the fire has been devastating, but it also brought out local ties. “It was amazing to watch people come together.”
Cattle associations and private groups are now collecting hay and distributing it to those who lost rangeland.
In eastern Oregon, convoys of trucks have hauled in about 600 tons of hay from donors inside and outside the state to a storage set up by newly-formed group Hay for John Day, a town just northwest of the Strawberry Mountain Range.
The historic fire season has also re-kindled a long-running debate.
Ranchers say the federal government should have allowed more grazing to reduce the severity of the wildfires. Environmental groups say more grazing would have increased soil erosion and riparian damage, removed native grasses and increased fire risk.
Federal officials stand in the middle: grazing, they say, may help slow some fires’ spread, but it won’t make a difference in extreme weather.
“When you have high winds, grazing won’t stop or slow that fire,” said Jessica Gardetto with the Bureau of Land Management.