USA –– FRENCHGLEN — A private pilot counted 45 dead cows Tuesday along the perimeter of the Miller Homestead fire near Frenchglen, but the actual toll in lost livestock from southeastern Oregon’s giant wildfires may not be known for weeks.
Meanwhile, Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a state of emergency in response to the fires that have blackened more than 1,100 square miles in Harney and Malheur counties. In an executive order, the governor directed state agencies to assist affected landowners and seek federal disaster assistance.
Kitzhaber’s office said his disaster declaration will help the state make a case to get federal assistance for ranchers.
“Now, we must ensure the immediate and long-term recovery of this region,” Kitzhaber said.
Late Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., offered legislation to restore funding to four discontinued programs that would help ranchers, tree growers and orchardists harmed by the fires. Among other things, the programs would offer compensation for ranchers for lost livestock and emergency assistance for grazing losses.
Whether Congress will approve it is an open question. The programs were included in the Senate version of the massive farm bill that was adopted last month, but were dropped in a House version. The House bill may not even come to the floor for a vote because of sharp divisions among Republicans over funding for food stamps and other items.
The Long Draw fire between Jordan Valley and McDermitt, Nev., is now fully enclosed by fire lines and the Miller Homestead fire is 85 percent contained, fire officials said.
The wildfires caused forage losses that have become a major issue for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, ranchers concerned about cattle and environmentalists worried about sage grouse and other high desert wildlife.
Some displaced cattle are being moved onto the 187,000-acre Malheur National Wildlife Refuge south of Burns, said Cameron Smith, senior policy adviser for Kitzhaber.
Discussions were under way about how long they could stay.
“It’s only an extremely short emergency situation,” said Steve Grasty, chairman of the Harney County commissioners. “The refuge has provided fire refuge for the cows, and everyone is grateful they did …There was no intent to open the refuge to grazing.”
Federal Conservation Reserve Program lands also might be made available to ranchers for their livestock, Smith said.
“The challenge is, there is not a lot of CRP land in Malheur and Harney counties” and it could prove prohibitively expensive to truck displaced cattle long distances to the program’s land in other areas, he said.
“There’s not a lot of immediate options for a lot of those cattlemen,” Smith said, particularly ranchers affected by the Long Draw fire — believed to be the biggest in Oregon in 150 years.
Locating ungrazed BLM land that is fenced and has water may be difficult, said Mark Wilkening, a BLM spokesman in Vale. “Finding land with water on it, that was already a challenge before the fire,” he said.
Another dilemma for BLM is the fate of about 95 wild mustangs displaced by the Miller Homestead fire. Workers cut fences and opened gates to let them escape the flames, but most of their forage was burned.
The mustangs probably will be gathered and kept at BLM’s Wild Horse Corrals near Burns, said Jeff Clark, a BLM spokesman in Portland. Still, it may be two years before they can return to the wild horse management area where they roamed, he said.
As for cattle losses, coming up with solid estimates will take time.
“A lot of the cattle were co-mingled in the rush to get them to safety,” Smith said. “It is a vast amount of acreage.”
Cows that survived the flames and smoke might have suffered burns on their hooves and legs as well as lung damage from smoke, BLM officials said. In that case, ranchers must make the difficult call of whether to put them down.