By Kindra Gordon
It's been a difficult, grim week for those of us who live in western South Dakota. The aftermath – and emotion – of an early season blizzard that tore down trees and power lines, smothered buildings, and tragically killed thousands of livestock has left the eerie feeling of a war zone in our communities and ranch country.
Loss not exaggerated
The devastating photos and heart-breaking accounts that some South Dakotas ranch families are sharing via the Internet offer a glimpse of what continues to unfold here. What many outside of this region don't realize is the magnitude of the livestock losses. Reports of ranchers losing 50, 200, 600 head are not exaggerations.
On a 20-mile drive along South Dakota Highway 34 seven days after the blizzard hit my daughter and I counted 50 dead carcasses along the highway. Those were just the ones we could see. Most had legs mid-stride, eyes open and were frozen in melting six-foot snow drifts. Others laid mangled in a heap at the bottom of cliffs along a riverbed.
Most of the cattle are being found with their heads and bodies angled to the southeast; they were using their instincts and trying to walk away from the storm and its raging 60 mph wind. But they were blinded by the snow, did not yet have winter hair coats, and became disoriented. Hypothermia killed most of them. Others got tangled in fences, were drifted over in road ditches or blindly tumbled into stock ponds and over cliffs.
As we turned around to head back to Sturgis, we saw pickups and ranchers on horseback still out looking for their cattle. One rancher was bringing his herd home with the help of a half dozen neighbors. My daughter said, "It's good to see some live ones."
We also met the rendering truck – loading up the carcasses that lay in the ditches. We stopped and visited with the driver Ray Spangler of Freeman, S.D. We were shocked when he told us this was his second time since Tuesday picking up animals along that particular stretch of highway. I can't fathom the scene earlier in the week.
Spangler confirmed there are thousands and thousands of carcasses to be collected. His company has been running six, 80,000-pound capacity semis in the area every day since Tuesday and planned to send ten trucks over the weekend. Many of the carcasses could not be collected sooner because they were still buried in snowdrifts most of the week.
While the devastation is evident, I am proud that the ranch community is doing what it has always done – pulling itself up by its bootstraps, neighbor helping neighbor, caring for the cattle that survived, and being stewards of the livestock that did not. I hope that is the story that the public and the media focus on.
These South Dakota ranch families care for the range and produce the wholesome beef that we feed to our families – and that is part of the beef supply for our nation and the world; we need them to survive and they need our encouragement.
I know these ranch families take heart in the kind thoughts, prayers and assistance from others. While we cling to hope that federal livestock disaster assistance may come for these families, it won't cover all their losses. Efforts such as the recently established Rancher's Relief Fund and the Heifers for S.Dakota campaign need our support. Sharing the positive stories occurring in the aftermath of this storm are also an important way to help the non-ranching public better understand – and support – our ranchers.
Together western South Dakota families and communities will get through this. As one ranch friend told me, "What's done is done. Now we need to figure out how to move forward."
From ranchers, I wouldn't expect anything less.
Gordon writes from Whitewood, S.D.