Drought Crippling Large Swath of South Dakota

A ranch near Wasta, South Dakota, burns as drought grips a large portion of the state. (Christopher Vondracek/CNS)

(CN) – Grass fires blazed, cows bathed in cool, scarce pools, and corn farmers worried about fall yields in South Dakota this week, where temperatures soared over 100 degrees – compounding a drought that’s covered most of the state for over a month.

“It doesn’t look good going forward,” said Laura Edwards, the state’s climatologist from her office in Aberdeen in the north-central part of the state, one of the hardest hit areas. Nearby Walworth and Dewey counties, straddling the Missouri River, are showing D-3 ratings for “extreme drought” on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s National Drought Monitor.

“D-3 is roughly equivalent to a drought that’ll happen three times a century,” Edwards said. “It’s beginning to look like the corn crop will be hurt.”

On Monday, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue opened federal Conservation Reserve Program lands for emergency haying, following confusion over whether farmers and ranchers would be charged for converting these lands. But many agricultural producers in the Dakotas are in need of rain.

There’s always the chance rain will turn around the dryness of June. But a number of South Dakota’s economic sectors are bracing for the worst.

A farmer mows a grassy ditch outside Aurora, South Dakota, after the state’s governor opened roadsides up for farmers’ use in a drought declaration last month. (Christopher Vondracek/CNS)

“We won’t know how the drought will affect the fall pheasant hunt until our count in August,” said Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. It’s common to see tractors cutting grass along ditches for hay to send to cattle after Gov. Dennis Daugaard announced emergency drought action last month, and mowing the grass disturbs the pheasants’ nests.

“In June and July, those birds are raising chicks,” Runia said. “Drought can cause a reduction in the bird population.”

South Dakota estimates the out-of-state hunters spent over $140 million in 2015 for the highly prized pheasant hunt. And the count – put out in late summer – is watched by hunters deciding whether to spend the money to travel to the state to hunt. The money from out-of-state hunters is coveted in a state like South Dakota, where the tax burden on residents is relatively low.

Runia said during the last severe drought in 2012, hunters reported a drop in their success.

In the state’s Division of Parks and Recreation, assistant director Bob Schneider is cautiously watching numbers at state parks.

“In some places we may need to institute a burn ban, which diminishes the quality of the campout, there’s no doubt,” Schneider said.

Out west questions remain how the drought may affect the popular Sturgis motorcycle rally in early August. Last summer – following record draws of over 500,000 in 2015 for the 75th anniversary rally – attendance dropped by 40 percent. Schneider noted the state saw a decrease in the state park passes that year and hopes the drought doesn’t ward off would-be bikers.

“We certainly want to get some water before then,” Schneider said.

But back in Aberdeen, Edwards said she doesn’t see much rain over the next couple of weeks. Last week, she held two drought-assistance presentations with the South Dakota State University’s extension service in north-central South Dakota.

“I’ve already got six more on the schedule,” she said.


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