The animals held out as long as they could against the punishing 70-mile-per-hour winds and the blinding snow. Unable to get to safety, thousands of cattle, horses and other animals simply died where they fell—or stood—in the storm that lashed western South Dakota for 24 hours earlier this month, with whipping winds lasting well into the following day.
State Senator Al Davis of Nebraska, which was also hit, visited the affected areas last week and estimated that up to 100,000 cattle and other livestock died, he said in a statement. Ranchers are assessing millions of dollars in damages that will affect the region’s economy for years.
“Things here are far worse than I anticipated in terms of deaths among cattle,” Davis said. “Livestock losses on the plains of Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming are estimated to be between 60,000 and 100,000 head. There are also animals that will sicken and die as time goes on which will add to these numbers.”
Though South Dakota is famous for extreme winter weather, that fateful storm seemed to bring all of it at once. Tornadoes, thunder and lightning, high winds and driving snow were reported in Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota, all of which run along the borders of South Dakota’s Indian reservations.
The animals and their owners were caught completely unaware by the unseasonable storm, which in a mere three days dumped more snow than the region usually receives for all of October. Ranchers had not yet moved the animals from their summer pastures to their winter areas, where more shelter is available, they said. Further, there was only a 12-hour warning before the storm hit. And the animals had not yet grown their winter coats, which might have helped them cope.
The rolling hills of the prairies create areas that dip and fill with snowdrifts, and many of the animals were found caught in those drifts. Ranchers said most of the cattle died along the fence lines, their calves beside them, as they tried to escape the treacherous conditions.
A week later, cattle sunned themselves behind lines of broken trees, and calves frolicked in the grass. But in the same pastures, along the fence line, dead cattle still stood deep in snow, forming a veritable trail of carcasses, Butte County emergency management director Martha Wierzbicki told the Rapid City Journal. Besides calves, the dead included cows that would have delivered calves next year, NBC News noted. And those that lived may very well abort over the winter, Davis said.
“Some cows managed to survive the storm by eating pine needles because grass was covered,” the state senator said in his statement, which was posted on the Rapid City Journal site. “This will cause them to abort the calves they are carrying in the next few weeks.”
"This is absolutely, totally devastating," said rancher Steve Schell to the Rapid City Journal. "This is horrendous."
How many of those animals died on the Pine Ridge Reservation itself has yet to be tallied. With layoffs occurring throughout the tribe in the wake of the U.S government shutdown, and massive power outages caused by the storm, resources have been slim. And ranchers are still searching for cattle that were driven miles away by the high winds.
“The government shutdowns have been hard on us,” said Ben Good Buffalo, Lakota, of Red Shirt, South Dakota.
Ranchers and individuals on the Pine Ridge Reservation lost not only their cattle and calves, but also their horses and other beloved animals, said Pine Ridge Eagle Nest District representative Ruth Brown. While the majority of the cattle lost most likely belonged to ranchers who lease reservation land, tribal members also ranch, and their livestock was also lost in the storm, said Lyle Jack, chairman of the Pine Ridge Community Development Corporation.
“We do have Indian ranchers, and driving around, I see cattle lying around,” he told ICTMN. “Quite a bit was lost.”
Many ranchers lost 20 to 50 percent of their herds, said Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, to the Rapid City Journal. Some of the cattle had just been brought up from Texas because of the severe drought.
This week the ranchers will start the heartbreaking and daunting task of getting rid of the carcasses. Pennington County in South Dakota is offering livestock-disposal assistance, Keloland TV News reported.
“Pits are being dug for livestock losses and these pits will be open to all producers on Monday, October 14, free of charge,” the station said. “The locations will be announced on Monday morning.”