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Know the West

After South Dakota’s deadly whiteout, a look at blizzards past


It began as unseasonably warm weather – 80-degree temperatures edging into the last couple of weeks before western South Dakota ranchers were to round up their summer-fat cattle, bring some to market and move the rest to closer-to-home pastures with gullies and trees for shelter against the brutal winter months ahead. The cows perhaps didn’t mind the Indian summer, since their coats had yet to thicken against the coming cold. And beef prices were reportedly strong in early October, when the hard rain hit.

If it had ended there, Scott Vance of the Faith Livestock Exchange told the Rapid City Journal, things would have come out okay. But then came the wind, gusting up to 70 miles per hour and whipping a deadly fusillade of crystalline flakes before it. By the time the storm cleared on Oct. 5, western South Dakota was meringued in snow well over four feet deep in places and untold numbers of cattle and other livestock were dead of hypothermia and suffocation, many jumbled behind fences or ditches that had blocked their path as they moved by instinct with the wind, seeking safety.

"I'm just so damned whipped," Rancher Steve Schell, who lost half his herd, told the Los Angeles Times. "I can't explain what it's like because, mister, you can't imagine it until you witness it with your own eyes. To see 15 or 20 cattle piled up — the fruits of all your hard labor — you have no concept. I sat down and bawled. Then I got up and threw up. … It hurts just to talk about it."

At first, estimates of the number killed were coming in at 75,000 to 80,000 to even 100,000 head. But as ranchers resign themselves to the laborious task of tracking down cows, clipping ear tags to tally losses, and dragging carcasses to 20-foot-deep mass graves, estimates have been revised down to between 15,000 and 30,000 animals, with ever-growing official counts at between 7,000 and 8,000 as of last Thursday.

Still, the storm took a large toll on individual ranchers and the state’s multibillion-dollar cattle industry: Herds represent not just an investment of cash and hard labor, but also generations of careful breeding. Worse, reports NPR, private insurance is unlikely to cover losses from blizzard suffocation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers programs that help with farm disaster relief, has been AWOL during the government shutdown. Meanwhile, the reauthorization of the Farm Bill, which contains aid provisions specifically for livestock producers, is languishing in Congress. “The first rancher I know of committed suicide yesterday,” Sioux Falls veterinarian Mike McIntyre told The Progressive Farmer. “This is just a devastating time.”

But though this early-season blizzard took ranchers by surprise, it’s part of a long history of winter weather disasters that have rocked the High Plains – and shaped our vision of them, from Little House on the Prairie to Wallace Stegner’s fictionalized memoir, Wolf Willow. One of the most famous, memorialized in David Laskin’s The Children’s Blizzard, took place Jan. 12, 1888 – striking a population of European immigrants unfamiliar with the harsh realities of the place they had only recently settled. “Montana fell before dawn; North Dakota went while farmers were out doing their early morning chores; South Dakota, during morning recess; Nebraska as school clocks rounded toward dismissal,” Laskin writes. “Before midnight, wind chills were down to 40 below zero. That’s when the killing happened. By morning on Friday the thirteenth, hundreds of people lay dead on the Dakota and Nebraska prairie, many of them children who had fled – or been dismissed from – country schools at the moment when the wind shifted and the sky exploded.”

Young steer near Rapid City, S.D., after the March, 1966 blizzard.

On March 15, 1941, a storm in North Dakota killed 39 people, most of them stuck in vehicles; another in the same state in 1966 left snowdrifts 20 to 30 feet deep, dropped visibility to zero for 11 hours, stranded three trains, and killed 74,500 cows and 54,000 sheep.

In her memoir Breaking Clean, author Judy Blunt recalls childhood scenes from the macabre aftermath of a 1964 storm: “We made games around the bloating carcasses (the ditch) held, daring each other to cut pieces away with our jackknives, holding our breath against the sweetish stench as we jumped from one set of ribs to the other, playing hopscotch on the bodies of half my father’s cattle. We shivered with naughtiness, dancing on the dead.”

It is tempting to think of these extremes as past – artifacts of a Frontier tamed from wildness to mildness. After all, blizzards in the U.S. kill far fewer people these days than they once did. And yet, the ranchers laid low by South Dakota’s recent storm weathered its opposite just last year: A crippling drought that forced many to sell portions of their herds to stay afloat. As we push the climate towards increasing volatility, we may be in for wilder times than we’ve ever known. “Every generation relearns the rules its fathers have forgotten,” Blunt writes. “One rule is awareness, the need to see past the power of human hands on the land, to the power beneath it. Those who forget have the wind to jog their memory, wind slipping evenly through the sage, dusting across the fields. Watch your back, it’s whispering, this land owes you nothing.”

Sarah Gilman is associate editor of High Country News.

Image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.