Ranchers, biologists hope for rain while fearing longer drought

El Nino rain has yet to fall on Arizona, which has ranchers, as well as climate and wildlife experts, fearing the worst.

"So far El Nino has not made an appearance," said Larry Martinez, Water Supply Specialist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Phoenix.

"If we don't get any rain in February or March we will head into our third year of drought conditions."

The drought has dried up grazing lands, leaving livestock and cattle without enough to eat.

It has devastated forests, increasing the chances of yet another dangerous wildfire season.

During 2002, only 6.18 inches of rain fell at Kingman Airport, according to the Arizona State University Office of Climatology.

"Kingman receives an average of 10 inches a year," said Elno Roundy, the chairman of the Northwest Arizona Watershed Council.

"The drought is a little more severe than usual."

Roundy said shrubs and grass go dormant during drought but grow again when it rains.

"Right now we are waiting for rain.

We hope it comes," Roundy said.

"If we get more rain it will help the ephemeral forage, but if we don't get more rain we have some real problems.

Roundy said the Joshua tree forest near Dolan Springs - one of the largest in the world - has been affected.

"Joshua trees and other yuccas draw moisture up in their stem as well as their roots," he said.

"But through visual observation it looks like we are already losing a lot of the trees.

"I would not be surprised if we lost up to 10 percent without rain."

Dry winters are not uncommon in Arizona, he added, but normally the state receives help from El Nino, the weather system that pushes storms northeast from Mexico's Pacific coast beginning late January.

That hasn't happened yet, he said, but Arizona could still benefit from El Nino rain during February and March.

Emmett Sturgill, who, with partner Jack Fuller, owns Canyon Springs Ranch north of Kingman and leases a ranch at Hackberry, said the drought has devastated the livestock community.

Sturgill said he is running about a third of the cows he is capable of running.

"If it doesn't rain within the next few months we will sell those," Sturgill said.

"We have to be careful to maintain the health of the cattle, and the health of the rangeland."

"This is the second year of the drought.

All ranchers are running below normal stocking rates."

Sturgill, who is the former president of the Mohave Livestock Association, said he sold most of his cattle last summer, and the cattle he has now are in good shape.

"We have adequate feed for the number of cattle we have," he said.

"We will have to wait to see what happens."

State and federal statutes protect livestock on public land.

The open-range law allows some ranchers to let their livestock roam and graze on land leased from private landowners or from the Bureau of Land Management.

Ranchers are in constant contact with BLM rangeland management specialists.

"We work together to maintain the health of the rangeland," Sturgill said.

"In times of drought is where the challenge comes," said BLM biologist Bob Hall.

"Unless El Nino comes our way in February and March, it is going to be tough.

This year has been extremely dry.

There is not going to be as much food for wildlife and range animals."

While it is impossible to control rain, it is possible to ease the effect of scarce rain with proper management, he said.

"We keep an eye on the vegetation in the area, and how to manage it to make sure the animals are in balance with the land," he said.

"We have come to expect dry conditions in the desert.

Drought is part of the natural cycle here."

Hall said many ranchers in the area have been forced to buy hay for their cattle, which can become costly, rather then letting the cattle graze.

"Some ranchers are moving cattle to other areas and others have sold cattle they would normally keep," he said.

"It is getting discouraging that we haven't gotten any winter rains, but we are still hoping."

During drought, livestock ponds and stock tanks on the range are filled with water for "a whole host of critters," he said.

Although Golden Valley is becoming more of an urban setting, the Black Mountains that surround the valley provide an ecosystem that support many species of animals that are also affected by the drought.

Administered through the BLM, the Black Mountain Ecosystem Plan - adopted by the BLM in 1996 - protects animals living in the mountains.

The Black Mountains are considered to be the premier habitat of all public land for wild burros and desert bighorn sheep.

The plan protects not only burros, sheep, and other wildlife, but livestock as well.

When the burro population increases to a level that the Black Mountain ecosystem cannot support them, the animals are removed, Hall said.

"The program has been successful," Hall said.

"If there are too many animals, they must be removed.

The ecosystem is split three ways: 30 percent for burros, 30 percent for livestock, and 30 percent for wildlife, including desert bighorn sheep, deer and rabbits."