(NaturalNews) Climate change is taking a toll on grasslands across the West. Almost 87% of the region is in a drought.
Nevada is removing wild horses and stocks of cattle from federal rangelands, Wyoming is seeding clouds as part of a long-term "weather modification program," Dust Bowl conditions have been reported in Colorado's southeastern plains, and the entire western U.S. has been beset more frequently by devastating wildfires across an increasingly flammable landscape.
New Mexico is experiencing the worst of the dry conditions though. The entirety of New Mexico is officially in a drought, nearly 75 percent of which is categorized as extreme or exceptional. Statewide, reservoirs are 83% lower than normal, the lowest figures in the West. In some towns, residents subsist on water brought in on vehicles, while others are drilling deep wells with costs upwards of $100,000.
Wildlife managers desperately carry water to elk herds in the mountains and blame the drought for the unusually high number of deer and antelope killed on New Mexico's highways, postulating that the animals are taking greater risks to find water.
Countless trees in Albuquerque have died from lack of watering under city water restrictions. In New Mexico's agricultural belt, low yields and crop failures have become a regular occurrence. Populations of livestock in many areas are 80% less than they used to be and now ranchers losing their livelihood face having to buy hay at inflated prices, moving away or selling their herds.
The last three years have gone on record as the driest and warmest since at least 1895, when records were first kept in New Mexico. Chuck Jones, a senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said even the state's recent above-average monsoon rains "won't make a dent" in the drought; deficits will require several years of normal rainfall to erase, should normal rain ever arrive.
With the supply of water in the West dropping, states are getting ready to fight over who the limited resources should go to. The state of Texas filed a lawsuit against New Mexico, arguing that their groundwater pumping has reduced Texas' share of the Rio Grande. The Supreme Court has already rejected a case that Texas brought up against Oklahoma regarding the water supply from the Red River basin.
The Rio Grande has gotten so low that in New Mexico it is often referred to as the "Rio Sand."
Experts are unsure whether the persistent drought conditions are part of a natural weather cycle or is caused by climate change. Jones, who is also a member of the governor's drought task force, is cautious about identifying the three years of extreme drought as representative of an emerging climate pattern in New Mexico.
Many farmers, ranchers and land managers have developed long-term plans that deal with the drought conditions as a permanent obstacle.
John Clayshulte, a third generation rancher and farmer near Las Cruces, removed all his cattle from his federal grazing allotment. "There's just not any sense putting cows on there. There's not enough for them to eat," he said. "It's all changed. This used to be shortgrass prairies. We've ruined it and it's never going to come back."
The 140,000 square mile Chihuahuan Desert was once covered with Black Grama grass. Overgrazing and persistent drought have reduced the grass to small, sparsely place, stiff tufts that offer little forage for wildlife or livestock.
In the absence of grazing grass, hungry livestock have taken to consuming seed pods of hardy mesquite plants. "They are not terribly nutritious," said Kris Havstad, a range expert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "It's like being the last one at the buffet and the only thing left is snow peas."
With only unwholesome shrubs available, the land is losing its ability to feed cattle. There is so little grass remaining that a square mile can only feed three to five cows in current conditions.
The Bureau of Land Management oversees much of the region which includes one of the largest public grazing areas in the country. The agency has asked ranchers to remove their cattle from a number of pastures for a year or two to allow the land to rest. Many ranchers have taken the initiative to remove their livestock voluntarily.
Not all the damage is attributable to grazing cattle and it will take more than just their simple removal to heal the environment.
"In the old days, we used to think if we built a fence around it, it will be OK," said Brandon Bestelmeyer, who conducts research on the Jornada for the Department of Agriculture. "That thinking didn't take into account climate change. These kind of state changes are catastrophic changes. They can be irreversible."
The Chihuahuan Desert is set to expand as more vegetation dies, accelerating the rate of desertification.
Bestelmeyer, a landscape ecologist, describes what's at stake: "If we lose the grasslands, grazing is over, and the generations of people who depend on grazing will lose their livelihoods."
Wildlife species will either migrate or die off, leading to a decline in biodiversity. The empty landscape will further lose its ability to transport water to recharge aquifers, making conditions even more arid.
Finally, Bestelmeyer said that without vegetation to hold soils in place, dust and sand will be on the move and encroach onto roads, crops, homes and businesses.