Wyoming drought conditions in late April

This map shows drought conditions across Wyoming at the end of April. The darker red color indicates the more severe levels of drought, while the white color in the north-central region of the state indicates no drought conditions present in that area. United States Drought Monitor/courtesy

CHEYENNE – Recent record levels of rain and snow in southeast Wyoming have been welcomed by local ranchers, although moving into the summer months, the long-term weather outlook in the state remains hotter and drier than usual.

After recent rainfall in the region, which followed a historic snowstorm in mid-March, drought conditions have improved substantially. While all of Laramie County was listed as being in moderate or severe drought in late February by the U.S. Drought Monitor, the latest update last week showed nearly all of Laramie County, along with Platte and Goshen counties, as only “abnormally dry,” the second-lowest intensity level.

“The combination of that big snowfall, most of which melted and went into the ground because the soil really wasn’t frozen that much, then this very nice rain this week, I would say that in terms of both water supply and certainly forage growth, it’s pretty positive over in this corner of the state,” said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.

For ranchers in the southeast region of the state, the grass supply should be good with calving season about 70% complete in Wyoming, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s statistics service, though the forage quality could change in the coming months.

Tony Bergantino, acting director of the Wyoming State Climate Office, said 2013 was the last time conditions have been as dry across the state as they’ve been dating back to last year. Hotter and drier than usual forecasts are expected to continue throughout this summer.

“For those ensuing two periods there, the May, June, July, and the June, July, August, you’re looking at 40% or so chance of below normal precipitation, and on the temperature side, that’s even better chances, and that’s a lot stronger signal,” Bergantino said. “Looking out through October, November, December, it’s looking like better-than-normal chances for above-normal temperatures.”

Meanwhile, several other parts of Wyoming continue to have more severe drought conditions, though the overall status has improved since the start of this year. In January, roughly a quarter of the state’s land was classified as being in extreme-to-exceptional drought. Last week, about 6% of the state, mainly in portions of Natrona and Carbon counties, were in those conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

However, Wyoming is “always a tale of two cities,” Bergantino said, noting that drought conditions in its western region, mainly Teton and Lincoln counties, have grown more severe as other parts of the state have gained much-needed snowfall.

“That big March storm really help things out, and then what we’ve been getting gradually over the time following has helped keep things that way, but in Wyoming, you’re never out of the woods,” Bergantino said.

Moisture levels will be key for ranchers moving forward, Magagna said, though the last few weeks have provided a boost regardless of what Mother Nature brings next.

“People are going to have a reasonably good grass supply to start out,” Magagna said. “How long it lasts and how much it dries up later in the summer is going to depend on whether we get any additional moisture, but if you can make the grass grow, then you’ve got something to work with, even though the condition of it might get drier and not be as high quality as you’d like to see. But at least you’ve got something there.”

Risks remain heading into wildfire season

While drought conditions have improved in many parts of Wyoming, wildfire risks “haven’t changed that drastically” heading into the summer months, according to Anthony Schultz, fire management officer for the Wyoming State Forestry Division.

“Rule of thumb, in Wyoming, painting with a fairly broad brush here, fire season starts to pick up early-to-mid-June,” Schultz said. “July is when we start seeing a little bit more fire occurrence, and then we see our larger and some of our more devastating fires, at least historically, in September and into early October. The Roosevelt Fire is a good example of that. The Mullen Fire is a really good example of that last year.”

However, every year brings a different level of risk to various parts of the state. Schultz said national experts have described southwestern Wyoming as a “bull’s-eye” for large fire potential this year, with snowpack about 65% to 85% below median levels normally seen this time of year.

Along Wyoming’s eastern border, the Black Hills National Forest also has a high risk for wildfire this year, Schultz said, noting the Mount Rushmore area in South Dakota already experienced a substantial burn in March.

In Medicine Bow National Forest, where more than 175,000 acres burned in the Mullen Fire last September, it could take some time for a wildfire of similar proportions to occur in the area, with much of the fuel load offered by heavy timber unlikely to regenerate for a few years.

“It’s not to say that they won’t have any fire occurrence, but it’s very unlikely that they’ll be receiving another Mullen Fire type of event within the next 10 years,” Schultz said.

People often play a role in causing massive wildfires, as Schultz noted roughly nine out of 10 wildfires – and about eight of 10 in Wyoming – are human-caused. In order to prevent sparking disaster, he said individuals should always be aware of the fire conditions in an area where they may be recreating and to check with the U.S. Forest Service for any details.

The risk of fall wildfires will also depend on how the summer months go in the area, Bergantino noted.

“The problem is if you get good precipitation in the spring, so you get that vegetation growing, and then everything just sort of shuts off, then you got all those ripe fuels sitting there,” he said.

Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at tcoulter@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.

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