Drought Threatens Navajos

The situation is desperate on the reservation, which has seen little or no rain in some areas. Livestock are dying of hunger and thirst.

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 Canyon.

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 his corral.

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 "desperate situation."

"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 herds."

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 130 sheep.

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 lines.

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. 89.

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.

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