Bitterroot ranchers call on feds for help 

Farmers and ranchers are facing a tough winter in the fire-devastated Bitterroot Valley. Last week, Ravalli County’s Right To Farm Committee chairman Bob Christ toured some of the valley ranches hardest hit by the fires. He came back from that trip determined to find help for the people who make their living on the land.

First order of business has been to invite Secretary of Agriculture Don Glickman and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to Ravalli County to see first-hand what has happened here.

“It is impossible to explain either in writing or in talking via telephone, the extent of this historic letter,” reads the letter from the county’s Right To Farm Committee. “We would like you to personally visit the affected areas so that you will better understand the urgent need for your help in starting recovery work.”

The letter will be hand-delivered to the secretaries and to the White House by a representative of the National Grange, Christ says. “We need non-partisan support for our efforts,” Christ comments. “We’ve also sent copies to our Congressional delegation and asked each of them to help.” Christ says the biggest problem facing ranchers and farmers whose property was in the fire’s path is fencing. In some places, fires burned with such heat, the wires melted. Thousands of miles of fence, belonging to private property owners, the state Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, was destroyed. It must be rebuilt before domestic animals can be returned to unfenced pastures.

“It isn’t just the fences alone,” Christ explains. “In a lot of cases, burned trees will have to be taken down before fences can go up. If not, the fences will be in constant danger from falling trees.”

Equally serious is the growing problem of big game depredation on private land. With nothing left to eat on the burned-over public lands, elk and deer are a common sight along every county road and highway these days. Christ says he toured one property where a herd of 150 to 200 elk graze each night. The elk have destroyed an entire field of oats and eaten the alfalfa fields off as neatly as if they had been harvested.

“As winter approaches, the problem will intensify,” Christ writes, asking for help with both domestic and wild animals.

Between the drought and the fires, hay is in short supply and prices climb higher each week. Christ is sure some ranchers and farmers face losing their homes and livelihood unless assistance comes quickly.

“We’ve sent the invitation,” Christ says. “Now we have to wait to see if they will come.”

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