OKANOGAN, Wash. — The state has provided $500,000 to help Okanogan County ranchers buy extra hay because of losses from 2015 wildfires.
It’s a “godsend for some folks,” but it’s only one-sixth of the $3 million local ranchers estimated in November that they would need to get through June or July of this year, said Craig T. Nelson, manager of the Okanogan Conservation District.
“If it helps pull them back from the edge, keeping them viable, it’s done its purpose, but people are worried about the health of the livestock industry in Okanogan because of limited grazing. People are selling off livestock,” Nelson said.
The Washington State Conservation Commission, in Olympia, issued a news release Jan. 15 announcing the funding and inviting ranchers to apply for it. But Nelson said the program was approved in mid-December, ranchers were well aware of it and the vast majority of dollars are already spoken for.
Applications may still be made at the district office or Ag Technologies in Okanogan.
Producers were limited to 75 percent of their cost of purchasing hay and up to $10,000 per round. Some made it to a second round, Nelson said.
A round is determined by a local committee of the district established to approve requests based on loss of hay and grazing forage, loss of grazing only, size of herd and whether assistance had previously been received, he said.
A round is basically when the committee worked its way through all the requests and ranchers started new purchases, he said, acknowledging it’s a loose system since some first-time requests came in after the second round started.
He said his staff was gone for the day and he did not know many ranchers are receiving money.
The money came from the state Department of Ecology through the Washington State Conservation Commission that oversees conservation districts, said Ron Shultz, commission policy director.
“To my knowledge, this hasn’t been done before, at least in recent times. We have built critter paths and fencing near Chehalis in recovery of floods, but buying replacement feed is a new thing,” he said. “We are trying to meet real needs of landowners.”
The idea originated with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Wolf Advisory Group to help prevent any increasing interactions between cattle and wolves because of the loss of grazing ground, Shultz said.
The appropriation was approved by DOE and WSCC without legislative action, Shultz said. Funding is limited to 2015 victims but the governor’s supplemental budget request includes $8.8 million for fire recovery that includes fencing, reseeding of grass and other costs related to the 2014 fires, he said.
The action was praised by Reps. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, who is an Okanogan rancher, and Steve Tharinger, D-Dungeness, chair of the House Capital Budget Committee.
A couple dozen ranchers or more have lost the ability to graze thousands of acres of rangeland in Okanogan County because of wildfires the past two summers that burned more than 1 million acres. Many are hard-pressed to find spring, summer and fall grazing.