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Drought changes little in North Dakota as change in weather nears; ag leader testifies on rancher impacts

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Drought at Elkhorn Ranch

The drought-shrunken Little Missouri River winds past the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. 

Drought remained relatively unchanged in North Dakota over the past week despite recent record heat, and some rainy and cooler weather appears to be in store.

Severe drought expanded slightly in the southeastern part of the state, but that was about the only change from the previous week, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map, released Thursday. Extreme drought continued to plague most of western and northern North Dakota, with a pocket of exceptional drought in Golden Valley County in the southwest. All of the state except the very southeastern tip remained in some form of drought.

"Those areas that have been in long-term drought will continue to see challenges to pasture and rangeland conditions as well as available forage," National Drought Mitigation Center Climatologist Brian Fuchs wrote. "Hay stockpiles continue to decline and will be more expensive on the open market compared to past years."

North Dakota pasture and rangelands were rated 78% poor or very poor, and 85% of stock water supplies were in those categories, according to the weekly crop report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Both percentages were up slightly over the week. Soil moisture continued to be in short supply, with 72% of topsoil and 77% of subsoil being rated as short or very short.

North Dakota Stockmen’s Association Executive Vice President Julie Ellingson on Wednesday testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power, describing the impacts of the drought and the difficult decisions ranchers are having to make. They include reducing herd size due to the lack of available hay and forage.

There has been a 24% increase in sales this year at auction markets where the association maintains brand inspection, according to Ellingson. North Dakota ranchers as of July had sold 148,000 cows, when the average for an entire year is 200,000, she said.

The state and federal governments have implemented numerous programs to help drought-stricken farmers and ranchers. Details on available drought resources in North Dakota can be found at https://www.nd.gov/ndda/drought-resources. Producers can access the federal Agriculture Department's Disaster Assistance Discovery Tool or Disaster-at-a-Glance fact sheet at www.farmers.gov.

Wildfire update

The conditions over the summer and early fall have also been hard on firefighters, with about 2,400 wildfires in North Dakota burning about 125,000 acres. The number of fires is more than 2 ½ times the number all of last year, and the scorched acres are more than 10 times what burned in all of 2020.

"Locally and nationally, it has been a long and active fire season," said a statement issued by Beth Hill, acting outreach and education manager for the North Dakota Forest Service, in recognition of Fire Prevention Week.

All western and central North Dakota counties except for Burleigh, Emmons and Kidder continue to have some form of outdoor burning restrictions in place. Those three counties on Thursday were in the moderate fire risk category, according to the state. Most western counties were in the high or very high categories.

Information on current fire danger indexes and county burn bans is available at https://ndresponse.gov/burn-ban-restrictions-fire-danger-maps. Fire restrictions on the Dakota Prairie Grasslands are at https://www.fs.usda.gov/alerts/dpg/alerts-notices.

Hunters cautioned

North Dakota's Department of Environmental Quality is cautioning waterfowl and upland game bird hunters to watch for potentially toxic blue-green algae in wetlands and lakes while in the field.

Hot summer weather contributes to the production of the algae that can produce toxins in the water called cyanotoxins. People and animals who swallow or come into contact with affected water can get sick, and animals and fish can die from it. There’s no known antidote for the toxins.

The algae discolor the water and cause foam, scum or mats to appear on the surface. In severe blooms, the water can have the appearance of spilled green paint or green pea soup. A list of advisories and warnings can be found at www.tinyurl.com/WMP-HABS. There were 12 listed on Thursday, two days before the start of the pheasant hunting season. The waterfowl season got underway in late September.

Hunters who come in contact with affected water should rinse off with fresh water as soon as possible, and rinse off their dogs if necessary.

Blue-green algae blooms can be reported at 701-328-5210 or on the website.

Wet outlook

Two storm systems are expected to move through the central U.S. over the weekend and early next week, according to AccuWeather.

"The first storm is expected to shift from the Northern Rockies into the Northern Plains Saturday and Saturday night, bringing with it cooler air that will really settle in early next week," Senior Meteorologist Courtney Travis wrote. "Temperatures in Fargo and Minneapolis are likely to be slashed by 10-15 degrees in a matter of two days."

Bismarck, which on Tuesday had a record-high temperature for the date of 91 degrees, is forecast to have a high on Saturday that's about 30 degrees cooler. Rain also is likely in the Bismarck-Mandan area on Saturday.

"A low pressure system will traverse the area this weekend, bringing the best chances for widespread precipitation we've seen in a while, along with cooler and more seasonable temperatures," the National Weather Service said on its Bismarck website.

The agency's 6-10-day outlook calls for an above-average chance of precipitation across North Dakota.

"After widespread rain chances this upcoming weekend, we are expecting more precipitation next week, with increasing confidence in a storm system moving through the Dakotas midweek," the weather service said.

Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or blake.nicholson@bismarcktribune.com.

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