Spring on the Northern Plains often brings rains, sometimes mixed with ice and snow, sometimes pelting the earth with hail from thunderous storms, and sometimes falling gently, as if to avoid bruising the thirsty ground. When the rains come, the precious moisture prompts the tender young prairie grasses to shoot forth in a spritely green. Fields of wildflowers bloom in showy splendor, and weeds spring up to stand beside them. Rivers test their banks and, when they escape, cut new pathways through the prairie.
Not this year. This year, the grass is already turning the dull green of mid-July, and instead of sweet damp breezes, we breathe the dust flying off dirt roads disturbed by cars and trucks and carried on the stiff winds. Construction sites and oilfield traffic intensify the haze. Instead of flowers, we see the dried remains of last year’s stand, and the prairie is in no danger of being bothered by river water with nowhere to go.
The plains are in a drought, and one that has crept slowly and steadily northward from its epicenter in the south, which has been without adequate moisture for several years. The most severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, remains in the Central Plains, burning up portions of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, and extending into the southwest and the Rocky Mountains. Dry conditions don’t end there, but continue throughout the entire Great Plains region.
In most of western North Dakota, conditions are listed as “abnormally dry” with moderate to severe drought just singeing the southern borders. Even so, burning bans are in effect to thwart the possibility of setting the vast dry prairie, and its towns and cities, on fire. Last year’s growing season was the 8th warmest and the 13th driest among the last 118 years, since 1895.
In 1895, TR owned ranches in the badlands of Dakota Territory, where he was no stranger to the harsh weather the plains have to offer. He wrote many letters back home to New York, describing harsh winter winds, blizzards, spring ice storms, and shimmering summer heat.
While TR endured and described the extreme and changeable weather on the Northern Plains, he would not have had the same experience as we do here today, particularly with blowing dust. During TR’s ranching years in the mid-to-late 1880s, the native prairie lands were largely undisturbed, and the deep-rooted native grasses kept the earth where it belonged. Western North Dakota was primarily settled between 1898 and 1915, and it was those farmers who turned the deep sod, planted crops and built farms and roads. Soil erosion became a serious problem that reached its climax during the “dust bowl” years of the 1930s.
For TR soil erosion was not a primary concern, but drought was. His cattle depended on the prairie grass, which didn’t grow as tall or as well in dry years. With little sustenance, they were hard-pressed to survive the winter.
In a letter to his sister dated September 11, 1893, Roosevelt writes about the dry conditions, stating, “…the drought is so severe, and the grass so poor, that I look forward with much apprehension to the effect of a severe winter on the cattle.”
Like TR, we “look forward with much apprehension” to the effects of the spreading drought.