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Drought And Climate Change Put One Of Idaho's Oldest Industries In Danger

ranching, cattle, trough
Julie Rose
For Boise State Public Radio

In a couple of weeks, Logan Alder will marry his girlfriend and move into a small house on the family ranch in Malad, Idaho. In another year, he’ll have an agriculture degree from Utah State University. But right now, he’s just a 25-year-old kid, knee-deep in muck.

Mud regularly builds up on the bottom of this large watering trough in a field where Alder’s keeping some of his 500 cattle. Usually a spigot keeps the trough full so muck can’t build up as easily. But lately, the well underneath is running so low the spigot merely sputters.

"As time progresses, [you] just gotta adjust to what’s happened," says Alder as he tries to clear away some of the built-up mud. "Last summer was the first time I’ve ever done it in this field."

As southern Idaho's drought deepens, water has come to dominate Alder’s daily routine and his concerns for the future of this family ranch he plans to take over.

Credit Julie Rose / For Boise State Public Radio
For Boise State Public Radio
Alder's family ranch has more than 500 head of cattle.

Ranching is one of Idaho's legacy industries. Today, it accounts for $1.3 billion in annual revenues, and yet, the work of cattlemen hasn’t changed much since their forefathers settled the southern part of the state in the late 1800s.

But big changes are now afoot: National Weather Service data show Idaho’s average temperatures are two degrees hotter than they were 100 years ago, and getting hotter. Couple that with persistent drought and some old-time ranchers have begun to wonder if their long-stable industry can survive.

“Most of the water problems in this valley is lack of winters that we used to get," Alder says. "I mean we used to get 3 feet of snow [on a] regular basis. Now if it snows a foot overnight, people go crazy. That’s what we need all the time. Get the aquifer and the water built back up.”

Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey say less snow is falling in southern Idaho, because temperatures are rising. The snowpack is melting earlier and more winter precipitation now comes as rain, which doesn’t fill reservoirs or recharge underground aquifers as well as snow.

Part of what attracted Alder’s great-grandfather to Malad was plentiful groundwater that used to make hay grow in the valley without irrigation. These days, groundwater and reservoir levels are perpetually low and Alder’s begun to think the climate scientists are right.

“We’ve been dry for most of the time that I can remember," he says. "I don’t necessarily think it’s (climate change) man-made – I think the climate’s been changing since the dinosaurs were here."

Climate models predict that by the time Alder is in his 70s, summer temperatures in this part of southern Idaho will average 5 to 7 degrees hotter. Some ranchers who’ve already reached that age wonder how the industry can withstand that heat.

Public lands where they graze cattle have already been hammered by drought and fire. Federal officials warn of grazing restrictions if conditions don’t improve.

A recent BLM assessment of range land in this southernmost tip of Idaho says damage from heat, fire and invasive weeds will only get worse in the coming decade.

Without public lands for grazing, 83-year old veteran cattleman Ross Anderson says, "we’d be dead. Dead on the vine."

Anderson isn't sure if ranches, as we know them, will exist in 50 years. "And if it will be, there’ll be one ranch where there’s 10 now.”

Growth is one way many ranchers hope to adapt to the region’s changing climate. Not necessarily buying more cattle, but acquiring more land to graze and grow supplemental hay as public land dries up. That’s Logan Alder’s plan.

Credit Julie Rose / For Boise State Public Radio
For Boise State Public Radio
Alder will soon be married and have his college degree from Utah State University.

In the hottest days of summer, he steers his dusty Ford Bronco from one arid grazing allotment to another, keeping an eye on his herd.

One bright spot to the drought is that it’s driven the price of beef to a record high, helping offset some of the costs that come with climate change. That bolsters Alder’s confidence as he thinks about raising a family here.

Still, this lifestyle he’s inherited from his great-grandfather has become too uncertain to not have a back-up plan.

“You know, you’re always gonna have a place to live -- and food -- if they like beef, hopefully they like beef," Alder says with a laugh. "If you just can’t make it then you’ll have to go get a job somewhere. And that’s, I guess, where the college degree comes in to play.”

Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio

Julie Rose has been reporting for WFAE since January 2008, covering everything from political scandal and bank bailouts to homelessness and the arts. She's a two-time winner of a national Edward R. Murrow Award for radio writing. Prior to WFAE, Julie reported for KCPW in Salt Lake City where she got her start in radio. Before that, she was a nonprofit fundraiser and a public relations manager in the San Francisco Bay Area. It took a few career changes, but Julie finally found her calling in public radio reporting because she gets paid to do what she does best – be nosy. She's a graduate of the communications program at Brigham Young University and contributes frequently to National Public Radio programs.

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