It began as unseasonably warm weather80-degree temperatures edging into the last couple of weeks before western South Dakota ranchers would round up their summer-fat cattle and bring some to market. Those they didn't sell would soon be bound for closer-to-home pastures with gullies and trees for shelter against the brutal winter months ahead. The cows probably didn't mind the Indian summer, since their coats had yet to thicken against the coming cold. And beef prices were 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 over four feet deep in places, and untold numbers of cattle 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 can't explain what it's like because, mister, you can't imagine it until you witness it with your own eyes," rancher Steve Schell, who lost half his herd, told the Los Angeles Times. "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."
As ranchers laboriously tracked down cows, clipped ear tags and dragged carcasses to 20-foot-deep mass graves, official counts kept climbing—with between 7,000 and 8,000 reported dead as of Oct. 18, and an expected total of up to 30,000.
It's a hard hit for many. Herds represent not just an investment of cash and grunt work, but generations of careful breeding. Private insurance may not cover losses from blizzard suffocation, and administrators of federal farm disaster relief programs were AWOL during the government shutdown. Meanwhile, the Farm Bill, which contains provisions to help cover lost livestock, languishes 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 wintry 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: "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."
On March 15, 1941, a storm in North Dakota killed 39 people; another in the same state in 1966 left snowdrifts 20 to 30 feet deep and killed 74,500 cows and 54,000 sheep.
In her memoir Breaking Clean, author Judy Blunt recalls the 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's tempting to think of these extremes as past, artifacts of a frontier tamed from wildness to mildness. After all, blizzards in the United States kill few people these days. 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 a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is HCN's associate editor and lives in Paonia, Colo.