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Exceptional drought, wildfire activity ease in North Dakota; rules relaxed for hay, water, livestock haulers

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NorthDakotaDrought

Recent rainfall has almost erased exceptional drought in North Dakota and curtailed wildfire activity in the state.

Exceptional drought is the worst of four categories. It now covers less than half a percent of the state -- a small pocket in Golden Valley County in the southwest, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map, released Thursday, a few days after as much as three-fourths of an inch of rain fell in parts of western North Dakota. 

"Due to that beneficial rain, exceptional drought was removed from central North Dakota," U.S. Department of Agriculture Meteorologist Brad Rippey wrote. "A few other areas (in the Northern Plains) also noted drought improvements of up to one category, as moisture has generally increased for newly planted winter wheat -- and some pastureland has begun to respond."

That wasn't the case in North Dakota, however. Pasture and rangelands were rated 83% poor or very poor, up from 77% last week, according to the weekly crop report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Stock water supplies were 86% in those categories, up from 83% a week ago.

Hay hauler aid

Gov. Doug Burgum announced late Wednesday that for a second time this year he has temporarily eased some driving restrictions for truckers hauling hay, water and livestock, to help ranchers struggling with the drought.

Livestock producers running short on water and feed have been forced to sell off parts of their herds or bring in supplemental supplies, including from out of state. That means commercial truck drivers are moving hay and water in significantly greater volumes.

“With drought conditions expected to continue through the fall across North Dakota, it’s critical that haulers be able to deliver livestock and supplemental water and feed in a timely fashion to help ranchers sustain their herds,” Burgum said.

His executive order signed Wednesday waives hours of service as well as vehicle weight, width and height restrictions for drivers of commercial vehicles transporting hay, water or livestock. It's in effect for 30 days. All road safety and vehicle compliance regulations still apply. The executive order serves as a permit and must be carried in vehicles operating under the waiver. A copy of the order can be found at https://bit.ly/3CGmP2A.

Rancher aid

North Dakota's Game and Fish Department this week outlined assistance available to help ranchers protect hay and other feed supplies from deer and other big game animals this winter. The aid could be even more helpful if the state has a bad winter and food is scarce for wildlife.

Assistance ranges from fencing materials through the department’s Private Land Initiative to help with increasing deer harvest through walk-in hunting access programs. Ranchers also are encouraged to help themselves by storing hay in a manner and location that reduces wildlife damage, such as by stacking bales.

For more information, go to the Game and Fish website at gf.nd.gov, call the main office in Bismarck at 701-328-6300, or call a local district office. A list of those offices, with contact information, is at https://gf.nd.gov/contact-us.

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.

Weekly data

The Drought Monitor shows that exceptional drought in an area encompassing parts of the central counties of McLean, Sheridan and McHenry has improved to extreme drought, the second-worst category. Extreme drought now covers 52% of the state, an improvement from 58% last week. All but the very southeastern tip of North Dakota remains in some form of drought, the same as last week.

The U.S. Drought Monitor is a partnership of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The crop report shows virtually no change in North Dakota's soil moisture conditions over the week, with 64% of topsoil and 76% of subsoil being rated as short or very short.

The spring wheat and durum wheat harvests have wrapped up, and winter wheat planting in the state is more than one-third complete, slightly ahead of the average pace.

The harvest of row crops is progressing. A little less than half of the corn, soybean and sunflower crops are rated poor to very poor. The second cutting of the alfalfa hay crop is wrapping up. Slightly more than three-fourths of that crop is rated poor or very poor.

Waning wildfires

The hot, dry conditions this summer have led to 2,228 wildfires burning 123,497 acres, according to Beth Hill, acting outreach and education manager for the North Dakota Forest Service. The number of fires is more than double last year's total, and the scorched acres are more than 10 times what burned in all of 2020.

There was little fire activity over the past week, however.

"(It) definitely has slowed down in activity, likely due to the rain we’ve been receiving," Hill said. "We will keep watch on it as we enter into our fall fire season next month."

The state typically has two wildfire seasons -- before spring green-up, and in late-summer and fall when new-season grasses dry out.

The National Weather Service said in its most recent drought briefing that "Although recent rains are resulting in new grass growth, taller and denser cured grass can still readily carry fire. Also, dead wood fuels continue to readily burn, especially over many parts of western North Dakota. Therefore, fire concerns continue."

Information on current fire danger indexes and county burn bans is available at https://ndresponse.gov/burn-ban-restrictions-fire-danger-maps. Aside from Kidder County, all western and central North Dakota counties continue to have fire restrictions in place.

Most western and central counties were in the high or very high wildfire risk category on Thursday, with low humidity and breezy conditions expected. Fire restrictions on the Dakota Prairie Grasslands are at https://www.fs.usda.gov/alerts/dpg/alerts-notices.

The weather service state forecast doesn't call for any significant precipitation into early next week.

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

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