CANYON CITY Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer says his office is coordinating efforts to get feed to 38 cows overwintering in remote Flag Prairie in southeastern Grant County.
Palmer said this week that conditions have improved over the past two weeks since he began investigating the situation. His office was called in after Forest Service workers got a complaint about possible cattle trespass on the public lands and found two dead cows near Flag Prairie. The exact cause of death couldnt be determined due to predation.
Palmer began an investigation into the state of the remaining cows, and consulted with the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Dr. Leon Pielstick, a Harney County veterinarian.
Pielstick reviewed photos of about a dozen cows, finding them malnourished. He said he used a scale that determines condition, with 1 indicating emaciated and 9 obese.
We generally want to see a 5 or 6. In reality we dont see that at calving time, but youd like a 4 or better, he said. The cows I saw scored 1 or 2.
Pielstick was concerned about how thin the animals were, and also the lack of good forage visible in the photos. He also reviewed photos of eight horses at Flag Prairie that seemed to be in good shape. He said horses are better able to paw through snow to reach forage in winter range.
The cows are on pasture at a cow camp on private property surrounded by national forest lands. Palmer said hes working with the owner of the cows, the landowner and a creditor to haul hay into the area. On Tuesday, he was planning to haul in at least two tons of hay and supplement, using a fifth-wheel trailer and a snowmobile trail groomer.
In addition to the 38, three more cows and a calf from other owners have shown up at the cow camp, Palmer said.
Palmer said snow is melting off the pasture to allow better access to forage, mirroring grazing opportunities in the John Day Valley.
Last week Palmer contacted the Forest Service to arrange for a snowplow to access the area if weather conditions worsened and the livestock need to be hauled out. However, he ruled out hauling for now.
Added stress to these animals right now may be the difference in their survival for some of these animals, he said.
Both he and Pielstick predicted it will take time for them to show signs of improvement.
The cows need a lot of additional feed now, Pielstick said, but its real important that they be fed properly. He advised against feeding too much, too fast, and said it would be important to start with very digestible feed such as grass hay and supplement.
The plight of the cows has sparked concern among ranchers and others in the community, but Palmer urged them not to interfere with plans that had been put in place to aid the cows.
Pete Rawlins, owner of the cow camp, said he felt the situation had been exaggerated by some people. He said the cattle had not been stranded or abandoned, but that the decision to overwinter them at Flag Prairie was made last fall.
Rawlins said hes grazed cattled in the area for many years, although normally we would have them in there in the summer and then move them out in the fall.
He said he and his son Austin, 24, who owns the cows, talked it over last fall and the younger cattleman decided to winter his herd there. Rawlins said the plan was to monitor the weather conditions, with Austin taking feed and supplement to the cows. If things got bad, they felt the cows could be trailed out to lower ground.
He said the pasture conditions were good going into the winter, but an intense snowstorm in January made it harder to access the area and harder on the cows.
He said his son was already aware of the two dead cows when they were discovered by people who made a bunch of assumptions. Age may have been a factor in the death of one cow, but predation and injury also cause losses on the range, he said.
Rawlins said his son is living out at the cow camp and feeding the herd now. He plans to stay out there, with occasional trips out by snowmobile, until theres plenty of green feed and the cows are putting on more flesh.
Asked if they would make the same decision about wintering the cows on Flag Prairie, Rawlins said not to expect it to happen again because hes in the process of buying some winter ground in Harney County.
Palmer said the situation remained under investigation, and the Grant County District Attorneys office has been advised.