Guernica Magazine

By the Horns

The costs of doing business in Interior, South Dakota, population: 94. The post By the Horns appeared first on Guernica.
Map and map data © Google, 2017.

First, it rained. Then the temperature plummeted, turning the rain to slush and the slush to snow. By the time Winter Storm Atlas was over, it had blanketed some of the nation’s toughest territory, a swath stretching from Wyoming’s Rocky Mountains to the High Plains of South Dakota, covering the Black Hills and Badlands in more than a meter of heavy wet snow and killing more than forty thousand cattle, horses, sheep, and bison.

If the storm had come just a few weeks later, the cattle would have been in their winter ranges, areas that offer more protection from wind and snow than the vast stretches of grass that the animals, worth around two thousand dollars a head, fatten up on all summer. As they were—dispersed and far from home, soaked by the rain and buffeted by the winds, exposed to the cold and blinded by the snow—millions of dollars of animal inventory felt the chill of hypothermia creep through them. Thousands of cattle would eventually die of heart failure, the meteorological stress too much for their bodies to handle. Thousands more broke their legs in stumbles off of high embankments as they blindly searched for somewhere to hide. Unable to walk, they too died. When I pass through, more than three years after that early October storm in 2013, the locals are still whispering about animals suffocating to death, water-saturated air freezing in their lungs.

The storm itself wasn’t all that terrible for a region that’s accustomed to withstanding the vagaries of the elements; had it rolled through in the heart of winter, few people would have blinked. But in early October, its toll—exacted upon some of the most isolated areas of the United States—was devastating. Tens of thousands of dead animals and about a billion dollars in lost income and infrastructural damage are difficult to visualize, but for each rancher, the crisis was personal. Jennifer Reisser used to be one of them; today she owns a small shop in town. She still remembers the pain of losing her cattle. “When they die, like in the storm,” she tells me, talking about her cattle, “that isn’t just money. It’s time, effort, dedication,

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