For ranchers in Moffat County, drought is tangible, inescapable
Standing in a small prairie basin punctuated by a large puddle of mud and water, Glenda Bellio looked up the rise toward a small crest rimming the divot in the land.
“Not that long ago, we’d have been underwater where we’re standing,” Bellio said.
Bellio was surveying what she said was the last natural watering hole within range of her herd of cattle. Her husband, Todd, pointed to a substantial dent in the mud on the far side of the water.
“That’s where I had to pull one of our animals out just the other day,” he said. “They come in trying to get to the water, and the mud can’t hold them so they fall in and get stuck.”
The Bellios are ranchers on land northwest of Craig up Moffat County Road 7 behind Cedar Mountain. They run what they said is the largest herd of their breed west of the Mississippi River. But, as the historic drought continues to dry out the land, keeping their livestock properly watered has, for the first time, become a whole new part of their work.
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While natural watering holes on the acres of grazing land the cattle roam were enough for years, now the Bellios must truck a few hundred gallons across 16 miles along dirty county roads from their home to a pair of metal tanks they cut where the cows drink. It’s about an hour round trip every day that they didn’t have to consider in previous decades raising the herd.
“Water is life,” Todd said with an air of mixed irony and sincerity.
And right now, life is fleeting.
“It’s been a lot of years,” Glenda said. “Todd and I have been together 30 years, and when he first got together with me, we used to put up 300 ton of hay on our property. That was 30 years ago.”
Now, she said, and for perhaps the last five years even, they haven’t been able to cut hay of any substance at all. That means shipping it in from down south or elsewhere — and it’s never been more expensive.
“We went from producing hay and selling it, to having to buy all the hay we need,” she said. “Usually about 100 ton a year. If you look at what hay used to cost, we were paying $75 to $100 for a ton of hay, now this year it could be as much as $300 a ton.”
It all comes back to water.
Bumping up and down the county roads between her legacy homestead and the spot where they water the cattle, Glenda pointed to little gullies a short distance off the path.
“Used to be water all along there,” she said.
Now they, too, are dry.
“We only run a few head of cattle, 30 or less on average, and we’re able to support the cattle with outside income,” Glenda said. “But even with all that, why not sell? And that’s a possibility. We do sell a lot, but packers are depressing the cattle market, and even selling and getting down hurts you, because the beef market is down. Still purchasing cattle to restock gets expensive, especially for specific genetics.”
So, what do they do?
“Pray for rain every day,” Todd said. “We’ve sold a third of the herd this year. Something has to change. There’s no way we can keep doing this.”
The Bellios aren’t big on blame. Fuel prices hurt, especially with shipping hay and hauling water, but that’s not the number one issue.
“Mother Nature is what needs to change,” Glenda said.
The issue extends beyond ranchers. Hunters, recreationalists, conservationists and more have reason to be concerned about the state of the dryer-than-usual dryland in this region.
“If I can’t run cattle on this country, deer and elk can’t survive on this country either,” Glenda said. “It’s not enough grass and water in this country to support my cattle, and if I’m not there making sure there’s salt out and the water is on the surface — I’m talking myself in general and for agriculture in general — nobody is out here taking care of the old fence lines, it’ll all go to pot. That’s not healthy for wildlife.
“So, there goes hunting in northwest Colorado.”
Todd, who joked he “dropped his crystal ball,” said if you look to the past, the Dust Bowl was about nine years before those folks started getting rain again. Maybe, he suggested, that’s what this generation’s got to wait out.
The acres upon acres of crust-dry prairie north of Craig can wait, if that’s true — whether or not it is, with the planet warming year over year casting some doubt, is another critical conversation — but it’s hard to say that the cattle and their caretakers can for much longer.
“We’re just a small canary in a coal mine,” Glenda said. “It’s a whole lot more than us.”
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Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6:45 p.m. to include a response from the Bureau of Land Management’s national office.