LARAMIE — Warm, dry weather has dried out rangelands and forced ranchers to cut herd sizes, push through pastures more quickly and buy hay.
"As you can see out there, it never really did green up, and there isn't any vegetation for grazing," said Matthew Scott, resource specialist for the Laramie Rivers Conservation District.
Drought has gripped Wyoming since 2000.
Scott said this year is shaping up to be the worst in that time. Only 2.08 inches of precipitation has been recorded at the Laramie airport since April. In 2002, the driest year of the drought so far, 2.06 inches fell during the same period.
Scott said wells and streams that cattle use for water have dried up, further decreasing the available range. "A lot of people are reducing their herd sizes. The ones who aren't are going to be hurting, because they're overgrazing their pastures," Scott said.
He said that even with smaller herds, cattle are eating through pastures faster than they would during a normal year. "There are areas where they should be going through them in a month, but instead they're going through in a week," he said.
Meanwhile, many grasses have stopped producing seeds, allowing invasive weeds like cheatgrass to thrive. "When you start getting these five- or 10-year drought cycles, … the drought could end next year, but we'll still be seeing the effects for five years to come," Scott said.
Calvin Strom, a range management specialist with the University of Wyoming Extension Office, said conditions on overgrazed rangelands could turn worse without rain this summer.
"The ground will start getting puffy. The dirt will get powdery. Then it'll start blowing with the wind and it could take off some of the topsoil. It's a combination of things that it affects not just grazing — if it stays dry — but also water infiltration and things like that," he said.
"It's something to be concerned about, that's for sure."