State fears agricultural disaster – Heavy Equipment to the rescue

Helicopters, snowmobiles may bring hay to isolated livestock to prevent a reprise of the ’97 disaster.

By Carlos Illescas
Denver Post Staff Writer
State officials worry that the blizzard that hit southeastern Colorado will become an agricultural disaster, rivaling the October 1997 storm that killed 26,000 head of cattle and cost ranchers more than $28 million.

“It’s bad out there,” said Polly White, spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Emergency Management. “Livestock is one of our major concerns. Gov. (Bill) Owens has authorized any means necessary to get hay bales to the livestock.”

A plan was in place for teams with snowmobiles and sleds to begin bringing bales of hay to the cattle by Monday evening or today. The snowmobiles were brought in from snowmobile clubs throughout the state. The Civil Air Patrol began flying over the area Monday to identify the locations of the stranded cows, and a C-130 helicopter was available to drop hay to the animals. The snow has piled so high that many ranchers haven’t made it out to the fields to feed their cattle since Friday.

“If we don’t have some help soon, we’re going to have a whole lot of dead livestock,” said Bill Carwin, who has about 150 head west of Springfield in Baca County.

State Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, and state Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, on Monday urged U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to declare a number of Eastern Plains counties disaster areas, a first step in securing federal assistance.

Some power lines in the area were down, but White did not know how many people were without electricity. She said the National Guard recorded eight medical evacuations Sunday and rescued people from at least 35 vehicles who were still stranded from Friday’s and Saturday’s snow. Numbers from Monday weren’t available.

Carwin keeps his cattle about 30 miles from his home west of Springfield. On Monday, he and other ranchers were using loaders and other heavy equipment to try to get their cattle.

But even if some don’t die, the livestock tend to try to flee to safety, going through fences and other barriers. Carwin feared that he may not be able to find the ones that have survived. “We need help. We need big equipment to open these roads,” he said.

Much of the state’s heavy equipment has been used to clear roads in southeastern Colorado, hit the hardest by last week’s blizzard.

In Springfield, travelers such as Mark Laudick and his son were going on their fourth day of being stranded.

“I think everyone just wants to drive out of here,” said Laudick, one of the fortunate ones who were able to secure a hotel room instead of having to stay at area shelters. “The National Guard says the road is fine, but they are not letting us through.”

The Colorado Department of Transportation had plowed most roads in the area, although they were still snowpacked Monday afternoon. Authorities were reluctant to open U.S. 287 out of Springfield because they don’t want motorists to slide off the road and get stranded again.

But CDOT spokeswoman Stacey Stegman expected that stretch of U.S. 287 to be open by Monday evening.

“We still have hundreds of trucks lined up on 287,” Stegman said.

A few roads in southeastern Colorado may still not be open by today, including U.S. 350 and U.S. 160, Stegman said.

Officials believe most of the people stranded had been rescued by Monday, but they were still searching for anyone who could not make it to safety.

Staff writer Carlos Illescas can be reached at 303-954-1175 or cillescas@denverpost.com

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