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Garfield County cattle rancher Burns Black had counted on a big year. With beef prices higher than they've been in many, many years, Black and other ranchers across southern Utah were all hoping to cash in on a financial bonanza.

Instead, Black will be running 25 percent fewer cattle on the Escalante Mountain this summer. And that means a loss of about $8,000 when it comes time to sell the cows.Black is one of the lucky ranchers. The drought, now in its third year in southern Utah, has reached disastrous proportions with many farmers unwilling to plant their crops and most ranchers being forced to cut their herds by up to 50 percent, occasionally even more.

Grazing on some Bureau of Land Management range lands has been eliminated.

"Even a 20 to 30 percent cutback to a cattleman is like cutting someone else's salary by 20 to 30 percent and still requiring the same amount of work of them," said Vince Pace, range conservationist with the Fishlake National Forest. "For those carrying a real heavy debt load, that could be disastrous. We could start seeing people losing their homes and farms."

The drought has hit Utah ranchers at a particularly bad time. Beef prices are holding unusually high - a rare event that often spells economic salvation to ranchers forced to carry large loans in those years when cattle prices are soft. They depend on good years to retire the debt.

"A large number of ranchers aren't going to be able to capture the earnings potential they had counted on," said Bob Meinrod, a forest range officer with the Dixie National Forest. "They are having to cut back on production when prices are the highest they've been in years. I can understand why some are upset."

The drought - which experts say rivals the floods of 1983 in terms of economic devastation - goes far beyond cattle prices. Reservoirs and lakes used for both drinking and irrigation water for farmers are dangerously low. And many streams that normally run year-round already have gone dry.

"This year we've got major springs and streams that produce a lot of water that are bone-dry," Pace said. "One cattleman, who's now over 70 years old, has been running cattle on the Fishlake since he was a boy, and he's never seen these streams go dry. But they are this year."

Worse, when streams and springs go dry, cattle tend to congregate next to those few remaining water sources, over-grazing and fouling the areas around the water.

Even if the overall range has good forage, the cattle will not leave the water. That in turns makes survival difficult for wildlife that must compete with the cattle for the few remaining water holes.

In many areas of the state, wildlife managers have begun hauling water to drought-stricken animals, particularly species in the desert country of southeastern Utah. Sometimes that requires the rental of helicopters to transport water to the most isolated areas.

"It is not the policy of the BLM to haul water to wildlife," said Joe Cresto, a BLM wildlife officer and desert bighorn sheep expert. "But considering the severe drought conditions, that policy doesn't mean much. We don't have a choice."

As Utah's wildlife is forced into the valleys to find water, Cresto expects fewer wild animals, particularly newborns, will survive the year. "The impact will be greater on some species, like desert bighorn, than others," he said.

The drought has evolved into a crisis that no one predicted in 1988. Even after two years of drought, reservoirs were in relatively good shape and streams near full. And while some livestock allotments were cut by 10 percent to 15 percent, it was still pretty much business as usual.

Now, three years into the drought, range managers are worried and ranchers are getting desperate. In many areas, ranchers must haul tanks of water to their livestock - a costly process even in the best of economic times.

"It's costing them big-time," Meinrod said. "One more year of this and you'll see a lot of people start going out of business."

It could happen even sooner. Range managers have informed livestock operators that cattle and sheep will be allowed on public lands only as long as the range can maintain them. If the forage runs out midway through the summer, the livestock will have to be removed, and that will mean paying for expensive hay and pastures.

That is causing a chain reaction throughout southern Utah. Low stream flows means less water for irrigation, which results in less hay to get the animals through those periods when rangelands are not accessible. Increased demand for hay means drastically higher hay prices, again requiring livestock operators to buy hay or to rent pastures.

"But there's no pasture available anyway," Pace said. "Many are shipping their cattle to Colorado to find pasture. But over there they have to compete with ranchers from Idaho and Nevada who are also hit by the drought."

And the higher prices for hay and pasture require higher loans and debt payments that ranchers will find hard to make with fewer livestock. In fact, many banks and lending institutions are calling BLM and Forest Service offices openly concerned about the financial stability of their clients.

Range managers try to remain upbeat, but the outlook is bleak even if the summer of 1990 should be wetter than normal.

"The damage has already been done for this year," said Jerry Goodman, district manager for the BLM in Richfield. "And most of the ranchers have used up all the flexibility they've got."


(Additional information)

Measuring dryness

The Palmer Index is a standard measure of moisture in the soils over a long period of time. Anything below -4.0 is considered an extreme drought, while anything above 4.0 is considered an extreme wet.

In Utah:

The Dixie region-5.3.

The West Desert region -5.1.

The South-Central region -5.7

The Southeastern region -6.4.

By comparison:

Southern California -7

Grand Junction area -8.9

Southeastern Idaho -6.6

Boise area-3.9