Years of wet weather needed to reverse long-term damage, climatologist says
May 12, 2005 A May snow fell Wednesday on the Black Hills and other parts of western South Dakota, bringing smiles to the faces of ranchers and firefighters and a little hope for an end to a yearslong drought.
But a few days of precipitation, and even the two months of rain the region has received, is not enough to break a drought. The dryness has lasted three to five years across western South Dakota and as long as eight years in Montana.
For now, ranchers can hold off on plans to sell cattle, and fire crews can relax for a month or so. But they’ll need a lot more help after that.”It’s going to take a rather spectacular year to get us back,” said John Lockie, director of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association. “You have to just turn a blind eye to it because, if you don’t, you just have to think, well, we’re going to have to have 30 inches of rain in one year.
“I think, historically, the last time that happened, Noah was gathering animals two by two.”The latest U.S. Drought Monitor downgrades the “exceptional” drought in northeast Wyoming to “extreme” and shifts much of southern Montana from extreme to merely “severe.” That should help with flows into South Dakota through the Missouri River.
In the southern Black Hills, rancher Leonard Wood said the recent rains and Wednesday’s storm meant he could cancel plans to sell some of his herd.
“Two months ago, I was concerned that I wasn’t going to have enough pasture, and now it looks like we’ve got some more time,” he said.Wood said he found moisture down to 2 feet deep while fencing recently. That’s a good sign for the growth of vegetation, but it won’t help him water his cattle.
“We need one of those gully washers to fill up some dams,” he said.The past 30 days have been good to South Dakota as a whole, said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the University of Nebraska.
But looking at a wider time frame, much of the state has been on the dry side. Not including the current storm, the Black Hills have received only 70 percent to 90 percent of normal moisture since October, he said. And eastern South Dakota has received only 50 percent to 70 percent.
And in the long term, only an extended period of moisture can change range conditions and the overall agricultural situation.”It takes a long time for those stands of grass to recover. It does not happen in one season or one year,” Svoboda said. “You’ve got to be careful not to call off this drought too soon.”
The same is true for the fire outlook in the Black Hills, said Jim Strain of the state Wildland Fire Suppression Division in Rapid City.He said the current storm should greatly reduce fire danger for two to three weeks. And he said the latest forecasts call for a normal fire season, which in the Black Hills would last from mid-July through September.
That would be a welcome break from the six months of fire danger per year that the Black Hills have seen since 2000. That pattern could return, of course, but Strain was among those allowing themselves to hope it wouldn’t.
“In my bones. it feels pretty good,” he said. “Everybody would love to hear that this is the storm that broke the back of the drought.”Reach Ben Shouse at 331-2318.