By Carol Ryan Dumas
Livestock ranchers running cattle in the rugged terrain of the Boise National Forest east of Boise have been devastated by two major fires that have ravaged nearly 265,000 acres of their grazing lands.
Their summer range is burned and charred and the death toll on their cattle is mounting, although it will be weeks before they can cover the steep terrain to get an accurate count.
Ranchers have worked tirelessly for days on end to move their cattle away from fires, doctor the injured ones, and try to protect their property and homes.
The fires burned thousands and thousands of acres, said Ron Davison, whose family operation is based at Prairie.
"It burnt the whole thing. It's a bugger," he said
Davison and other ranchers run more than 2,000 mother cows plus their calves in the area ravaged by the Elk Complex fire. Ranchers were able to move some of their cattle, but they're still trying to find whatever's alive, he said.
Ranchers don't know how many cattle they might have lost. They've only been able to get into a small portion of the area and are just starting to ride the backcountry, which is going to take some time, he said.
"It's just a helluva mess," said Carolyn Hunt, whose family runs cattle from Dixie to Mayfield.
The Elk Complex fire started just behind her house, which her family and neighbors were able to save, she said.
But area ranchers couldn't save all their cattle, and they don't know how many more might have perished. The country is so rough and so big, it's going to take a while to assess the damage, she said.
"When we gather in the fall, it takes us a couple of weeks," she said.
One neighbor has lost 200 head, and Hunt has lost about 50 head thus far, but it could have been worse. The day before the fire started, the family had moved 250 mother cows and their calves to an upper pasture they utilize this time of the year, she said.
Ranchers are devastated, said Linda Lord, who ranches near Mountain Home with her husband, Preston, and runs cattle in the area hit by the Pony Complex fire.
"My mind is just putty. I'm just foggy and scattered. We've been through so much," she said
She had to leave the fire area to return to her job teaching first graders in Mountain Home, but her husband is still up there looking for cattle, alive or dead, she said.
"It's pretty frustrating. We don't know what we lost, the fire is still burning, she said on Thursday.
The Lords were affected in three different areas - private land and BLM and state allotments. They had to keep going from one place to another to get cattle out of the way of the fire and move them to ground that had already burned, providing feed and water, she said.
"It's one of the most difficult things we've ever had to experience," she said.
Ranchers are dealing with lost cattle, lost grazing ground, doctoring injured cattle, shooting or slaughtering those too ill or injured, and wondering how they're going to manage with limited ground, high feed costs and hay in tight supply, she said.
As for her operation, "we don't know what we're going to do ... we're hoping to save the herd," she said.
Davison said his family has moved some of its cattle to other grazing land and bought pasture, but they'll probably sell more cattle than they normally do this fall.
"We'll survive," she said, "it just won't be too easy."
Sheep ranchers in the area fared better, said Stan Boyd, executive director of Idaho Wool Growers Association.
One sheep rancher has about 100 ewes missing but has been able to move several bands, getting them away from the fires. Another shipped his lambs on Saturday, and is loading up his band of ewes and hitting the trail home, he said.
The Pony Complex fire, which has claimed 147,881 acres northeast of Mountain Home, is now 80 percent contained. The Elk Complex fire, which has burned 116,914 acres in the Pine/Featherville area, is 40 percent contained, according to InciWeb, an interagency information system.
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