Impacts of the 2002 Drought on Western Ranches and Public Land Policies

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Western Economics Forum





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Precipitation received for the 12 months prior to 31 August, 2002 place last year’s drought as one of the worst on record since 1885 for much of the West. States that have set records for their driest September to August overall precipitation ever recorded include Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah while Wyoming recorded its second driest period ever between these months (NOAA, National Climatic Data Center). Areas rated by the US drought monitor as experiencing exceptional drought conditions by this date include northern Arizona and New Mexico; southern Utah; western Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota; and large portions of Colorado and Wyoming. The states of California, Oregon, and Washington were also greatly impacted by this drought. Pasture conditions were rated as very poor to poor for 90, 63, and 51 percent of these states’ respective grazing lands for the week ending 1 September, 2002 (USDA/NASS). The objective of this article is to examine how last year’s drought has affected cattle ranching in the West. We review beef cow slaughter numbers, where herd liquidations were most intense, the fallout for public land grazing issues, and future management strategies for both public and private landholders. Management strategies to withstand the drought have included reducing stocking rates, purchasing supplemental feeds, weaning calves early, shipping cattle to other areas, and/or grazing pastures more intensely. Management options were more limited for ranchers that rely heavily on using public lands, which significantly altered how some of them will recover from the drought. Restrictions on public lands that resulted from the drought are attributed to bringing an alignment between ranchers in some areas and environmental groups to push for legislation to buyout federal grazing permits. This article discusses how these political movements and the drought will likely impact future cattle numbers and the western range landscape.

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