Wildfires kill cattle, pigs

Thousands of animals dead, ranches devastated
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Thousands of cattle and pigs died in early March wildfires.

Official counts of animals killed were unavailable by mid-March, but reports from affected states indicate the fires burned more than 2,000 square miles in southwestern Kansas, northwestern Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle.

Heather Lansdowne, communications director for the Kansas Department of Agriculture Division of Animal Health, said most of the thousands of animals known to have been injured or killed in Kansas were cattle, and she heard reports that, in some areas, 60-80 percent of cattle owners’ herds had been killed. She noted that the state was in the early stages of assessments.

Kay Ledbetter, a communications specialist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center, said her state lost an estimated 2,500 cattle and 1,900 hogs in the fires.

Danny Nusser, north regional program leader for the AgriLife Extension Service, said the fire struck during the middle of calving season. The Texas Panhandle has a dry climate, but moisture over the past few years had created a boom in grass growth this year, providing ample forage and fuel for a wildfire, he said.

The grass probably will grow back within two years, Nusser said. The losses are devastating for the ranchers and the communities that depend on agriculture, he said, but they are resilient enough to bounce back.

Dead livestock on parched ground
(Courtesy of Mark Spare)

Dr. Rod Hall, Oklahoma’s state veterinarian, said fires in his state killed about 6,000 sows in two barns, and the death count for cattle in his state is expected to total about 3,000. He heard 20 horses and small numbers of other livestock, such as sheep and goats, also had died, as had wild animals unable to outrun the smoke and flames.

On one day, Dr. Hall said, a fire 15 miles wide in Oklahoma was fueled by winds between 60 and 70 mph.

“Pretty much anything in the path was going to get killed,” he said.

The largest group of fires, which became known as the Starbuck Fire, started March 6 in Oklahoma and spread into Kansas, according to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. It burned more than 300 square miles in Oklahoma and more than 700 square miles in Kansas, destroying homes and infrastructure and killing livestock, according to reports from the Oklahoma Forestry Services.

Information from Kansas’ state government indicates that group of fires burned more than 85 percent of Clark County, home to about 2,000 people.

Dr. Randall Spare, a veterinarian and rancher in the Clark County seat of Ashland, said some of his clients lost more than 90 percent of their cattle, including some with herds that had numbered more than 1,000 head.

The pastures had been thick with dry grass that the cows could eat while calving. When the fire started, sustained winds gave ranchers little chance to move their animals out of harm’s way, he said.

After the fire swept through, Dr. Spare saw burnt cattle carcasses, cattle that were alive but unable to open their eyes, and calves unable to nurse on their mothers’ burned udders.

The landscape is now barren, empty of grass, trees, cactuses, and sagebrush, he said. Yet, he said, the grass would grow back with as little as an inch of rain.

Ranchers have gathered their surviving cattle, many of which have been living on donated hay, he said.

Dr. Hall said a mix of fire, smoke inhalation, and stress killed the cattle. Veterinarians have told him they were saving the cattle they could and euthanizing the others.

He noted that ranchers care about the animals they raise, and their deaths have to be devastating.

Dr. Hall said some ranchers will need years to recover their businesses, and others never will. For those close to the margin and burdened with debt, he said, federal indemnity programs may be insufficient.

Oklahoma’s government is trying to help coordinate emergency responses within the state and serve as an information clearinghouse, Dr. Hall said. Most of the recovery efforts, such as matching hay donors with cattle owners in need, are being handled by local organizations or local branches of broader organizations, such as the Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service.

Dr. Hall also said U.S. Department of Agriculture officials have helped ranchers file paperwork for reimbursement or identify the best locations to bury livestock. Oil industry companies have provided heavy machinery, such as bulldozers, to help with carcass disposal.

“We like to brag about the Oklahoma spirit and the way we all jump in and help each other out,” he said.

A calf is temporarily housed by Deerfield Feeders after a wildfire on its owner’s ranch. (Courtesy of Dr. Tera Rooney Barnhardt)

In addition, USDA officials announced March 21 that another $6 million would be available through the USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help farmers, ranchers, and woodland owners restore grazing land, rebuild fences, protect damaged watersheds, and implement conservation measures to mitigate losses.

Dr. Spare has worked in Clark County 27 years, and his clients are friends. He said many of the ranches have survived more than 100 years through tremendous resilience.

Dr. Spare said the ranchers in Clark County see themselves as stewards of their cattle and land, and they tend to work toward their cattle’s well-being before their own.

He expressed confidence they would recover, despite the arduous work and high cost. Each mile of fencing alone costs $8,000-$10,000, and a rancher might need to replace hundreds of miles of it, he said.

Despite his own losses, with 2,000 acres of his property burned and some of his own cattle killed, Dr. Spare said his job is to encourage and help others. To him, a living is a byproduct of a veterinarian’s service to others.

Dr. Spare said the fire’s devastation is a reminder the region needs young veterinarians who can work with the next generation of ranchers and their cattle. Without veterinarians, he said, the fire would have resulted in chaos.