From New Mexico to the eastern slopes of the Cascades, the West is suffering from a sixth year of drought. Various combinations of thin snowpack, hot weather in spring and summer causing premature runoff, and scant summer rain are to blame.


The drought is a contributing factor to wildfires which have burned over 2 million acres this year. Around the West, wildlife is also suffering.


Larry Tunell, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Denver, says a high-pressure system parked over the Rocky Mountains through late July prevented moisture from coming into the region, a problem that occurs about once a decade. Most thunderstorms forming over the region brought lightning and thunder but little rain.


In Washington, Idaho and Colorado, farmers are running out of water. Some of Colorado's rivers are so low, only the most senior water rights are being honored. In Utah, it is likely that public-land managers will tell ranchers to take livestock off allotments early.


"The majority of our snowpack went directly into the atmosphere" through evaporation, says Randall Julander, a snow specialist with the Soil Conservation Service in Utah. Temperatures climbed above 100 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 45 days in parts of southern Utah, drying up many streams and springs.


Rain in June and July failed to make up for a snow-poor winter in the Northwest, and reservoirs are so low on the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers that hydro dams have scaled back generation of electricity. Water is still being released for farming and to support salmon, which are feeling one more stress.


Pat Ford, of Save Our Wild Salmon in Boise, says decreased water in the upper Salmon and Columbia rivers makes it harder for salmon to find habitat for egg-laying. The drought impacts juvenile salmon even more, says Ford, because they depend on the current to "push" them through reservoirs to the Pacific Ocean.


Draining the high lakes and reservoirs now may leave no safety margin if next summer is also dry.


Federal agencies are left with few options to help salmon later, says Ford. "It's bad news. Mother Nature is the only tool we can turn to. Salmon advocates are praying for a good winter."


Meanwhile, in the Southwest and Colorado, drought has increased encounters between humans and black bears. Deprived of berries and other forage in the dry high country, black bears are coming into populated valleys and campgrounds.


"At this time of year they're trying to put on fat for the winter," says Todd Malmsbury, a spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.


In Arizona, lack of water and scarce prey has forced mountain lions to range over a larger area than usual, says Rich Beaudy, of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. This July, a mountain lion injured a 2-year-old in Arizona's Tonto National Forest, and another lion attacked a pet goat while the owner stood nearby, reports the Arizona Republic.


Dry conditions were also cited in a bear attack near Trinidad, Colo. A 14-year-old boy suffered minor injuries in late July, when a bear wandered onto a back porch and ripped through a tent where the boy and a friend were sleeping. Twenty miles south of Trinidad in Raton, N.M., more than a dozen bears have wandered into town, although residents report no attacks.


* Bob Wilson, HCN intern