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Drought Plagues Navajo Indian Tribe's Reservation in Western US - 2003-02-16

For just over four years now drought has gripped a wide swath of the United States. From Maine in the northeast to California in the southwest, 29 states in all are suffering conditions that range from moderate to severe. One of the hardest hit areas is the reservation land of the Native American Navajo Indian tribe.

The Navajo Nation encompasses an area the size of Switzerland and straddles portions of four western states. This high plains country has a beauty all its own, but it's a stark beauty. Rust colored mesas and brown sage grass bake under cloudless, deep blue skies. Even in ideal weather, there's rarely any green, so it's hard to judge the depth of the current drought. What you do notice is the absence of livestock and wildlife. In the hour-long drive between Gallup, New Mexico and Window Rock, Arizona I didn't see a single cow, sheep, horse or antelope.

"I have slides here where the animals are dying in the water holes," says Glenda Davis, Director of the Navajo Nation Veterinary program. She recently completed a drought damage assessment for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in hopes of securing relief aid for Navajo Ranchers.

Her report included a number of graphic photos of dead and dying livestock. "They would try to get to the water source and that water source would be drying up so they would get stuck in the mud. And they didn't have enough strength to get out and they would die in the water holes," she says.

The report also included a livestock body weight assessment, scores on a scale of one to ten with one representing a starving animal little more than skin and bones. "What we did see throughout the nation with our drought was that the cattle had body scores of threes and fours," she says. "Sheep and goats had body scores of ones and twos and feral horses had scores of ones and twos."

To reduce grazing pressure and keep cash strapped ranchers from having to buy feed, Ms. Davis says the Navajo Nation arranged an ongoing series of livestock auctions. "We've had three or four animals at every sale die in the chute, right on the grounds, because they didn't have the nutritional backup they needed to get through that stress on the truck somewhere else," she says.

Navajo rancher Leo Denetsone has sold livestock in those sales. He grazes cattle on two plots of land. The largest encompasses more than 4,800 hectares. To date, Mr. Denetsone has lost about a fourth of his herd. Ten percent died in the field. The rest he was forced to sell at well below normal value.

"They spend all their time walkin', because the available grass, what little there is, is far away from the water sources," he says. "They're in shape to run a marathon, but they're not in good shape to be sold. That's our problem. They're leggy. They're skinny. They don't have all the flesh that we would like to see on' em and normally that they would have."

Some of his animals have died trapped in mud flats just as Glenda Davis described. Others have succumbed to disease. Predators killed a few more and the rancher says he's had some scary encounters with wild dogs and coyotes.

"The drought has affected the rabbits and the small rodents that the wild dogs and coyotes live on," he says. "They become less in numbers and force these wild animals to look for food because they are starving too, and that's why they jump on the calves."

However the animals die, losing livestock is especially hard on reservation residents. Many Navajo lead a subsistence lifestyle. Per capita income here is $5,000 a year - about a fifth of the national average. Any financial setback is felt immediately. But according to Arvin Trujillo, who leads the Navajo Nation's Department of Natural Resources, for tribe members raised in the traditional way, the loss of livestock also has serious cultural and even spiritual implications.

"Livestock ownership was a way to show your ability to sustain your family, a way to show wealth. It was a part of what we call being a Navajo or Deneh, that you are close to the ground, that you're working with the earth," he says. "You're working in concert and harmony with the earth so that you gain the fruits of that effort. And a lot of that is still a part of a lot of our people in terms of how we interact with mother earth."

Mr. Trujillo cites his mother as an example. Mrs. Trujillo enjoyed a successful career in the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs and could have done whatever she pleased in retirement. Her choice was to return to the reservation and herd sheep in the way of her ancestors.

"This is what she did as a young girl, and now that she's a senior she's reverted back to that…what she feels is a simple life. She knew who the sheep were," he says. "She had her two or three dogs with her. She felt comfortable doing that."

And while the current drought has caused a great deal of discomfort, Mr. Trujillo says he does see at least one positive side. Navajo lands are vast, but too dry to support a large population. There are now so many Navajo keeping livestock, the range is in serious danger of over grazing.

Mr. Trujillo says the drought is providing a glimpse of the nation's future and a chance to improve it. "Sometimes it takes a crisis for people to begin to recognize what some of the major issues are. Over the years, you know, drought has come to the southwest, but you didn't have as many Navajos as you have now," he says. "There was that open range mentality. If you had a drought in one area there was a tendency to move somewhere else. We can't do that anymore."

Rancher Leo Denetsone vows that, no matter what the future holds, he'll always have livestock even if he's reduced to a single cow standing in the barn. "We're somehow tied to livestock," he says. "It's hard to imagine that we're going to be without it one day if this drought continues, but we're at the mercy of the times. I'm just gonna' pray that the drought will stop."

The drought has in fact eased somewhat this winter. However, cumulative precipitation is still well below normal. Forecasters predict the advent of another El Nino system in the Pacific will mean relief for parts of the United States, but doubt the drought will be broken nationwide.