The situation is desperate on the reservation, which has seen
little or no rain in some areas. Livestock are dying of hunger and
MARK SHAFFER The Arizona
Republic June 4, 2002
THE GAP - They've never seen a drought like this, the elderly,
tough-as-nails Navajo ranchers who for generations have herded their
sheep, goats and cattle over this moonlike landscape near the Grand
Where it's so dry, so devoid of life, that the only thing green
sprouting this late spring is the occasional prickly strand of a young
thistle plant that never will make it to tumbleweed size because the
livestock are so hungry. Where the corpses of numerous cows and horses
no longer even draw flies. Where 61-year-old Franklin Wilson marvels
that even the rattlesnakes have disappeared from their rocky lairs near
The 80 stock ponds of earthen dams in the Bodaway/Gap area of the Navajo
Reservation have been dry for months. Angry words, and sometimes even
fights, break out in lengthy lines at a single water-pumping station
near the Gap Trading Post. There, ranchers wait their turn, sometimes
for hours, to fill barrels and tanks in the backs of pickups and panel
trucks with hundreds of gallons of water for their famished herds.
This, nervous Navajo Nation officials fear, is the blueprint for the
rest of the largest reservation in the United States unless substantial
moisture comes soon.
More than 7,000 stock ponds are dry across 17 million acres of the
reservation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Many of the tribe's 900
windmills, most of them pumping groundwater from subsurface pools, are
expected to stop producing within the next month.
Despite both tribal and federal emergency drought declarations, no money
has been forthcoming for aid in buying feed while ranchers nearing
destitution pay inflated prices for hay and other staples.
Thousands of head of livestock in the Navajos' $20 million ranching
industry are expected to die in coming months unless ranchers adhere to
admonitions of tribal officials and get rid of their herds.
Navajo cultural experts fear that the ongoing drought has the potential
to weaken, if not destroy, the tribe's world-famous rural traditions,
most notably expertise in rug weaving. Those traditions already are in
steep decline as younger generations move to cities for employment.
There is only one-tenth the number of sheep there was 75 years ago.
Alex DiNatale, a Navajo Nation hydrologist in Window Rock, calls it a
"It looks like another planet off the roads here," he said.
"Hundreds of head of livestock have already died, and that's going
to be thousands soon if people don't move quickly to get rid of their
And there's little help, if any, for ranchers coming from the tribe.
Gap/Bodaway officials said they received only $20,000 in emergency
funding last year, which was targeted for humans.
Thomas Tso, a range conservationist for the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, said the western part of the reservation has received
$280,000 during the past three years, but the money has been earmarked
for water catchment basins and fencing.
The situation is most desperate, DiNatale said, on the far western part
of the reservation in Arizona in the Bodaway/Gap and Cameron areas,
where locals say it hasn't rained since last fall.
The National Weather Service's only reporting station on the
reservation, 100 miles away at Canyon de Chelly, has reported just more
than one-third of an inch since Jan. 1, about 12 percent of normal. The
Navajo Reservation is the driest place in the state, according to the
National Drought Mitigation Center.
It is also extremely dry on the far eastern part of the reservation, in
New Mexico, where a tribal ranger went through a traumatic experience
earlier this month.
"There was nine head of cattle which were standing by a busy
roadway because they had spotted a little green," DiNatale said.
"But they were like the living dead, eyes rolled back in their
heads, ribs sticking out, not responsive to anything around them. So,
the ranger got his gun and shot and killed all of them."
Michael and Laura Jensen of Gray Mountain definitely understand what
those cattle were going through.
They are living with Michael's 73-year-old grandmother, Jean Jensen, in
a hogan in a small valley at the foot of Gray Mountain in the
southwestern corner of the Cameron chapter, a local governing unit on
the reservation. They have been helping the widowed, elderly Jensen
through these most difficult times as she tries to maintain her herd of
The Jensens have taken in three calves during the past two weeks, all of
whose mothers succumbed to the drought.
The remains of one of the mother cows, visible on the family's daily
water and hay runs, serve as a reminder of their precarious predicament.
The cow, tongue implanted in the surface crust of the ground, died where
there was once a huge pond beneath large, hydroelectric transmission
On this day, the Jensens have bought three bales of hay for the sheep
herd and powdered milk for the calves, and filled two 55-gallon barrels
with water, then made the 7-mile trip back to their home west of U.S.
After the Jensens return home, the thirsty sheep surge forward to three
metal wash basins that have been filled with water, like humans mounting
a Third World city bus. Within 30 seconds, each of the wash basins has
been sucked dry.