By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, Wyoming (Reuters) - Wyoming's governor, citing drought conditions, has asked for a federal disaster declaration after dwindling runoff from meager winter snowpack combined with an especially dry spring and early summer hit ranchers hard, his office said on Friday.
The request, if successful, could help farmers qualify for federal assistance based on poor grass and hay production that has driven many to sell off cattle in the face of persistent dry weather.
"Wyoming farmers and ranchers are struggling to work through serious impacts caused by drought," Governor Matt Mead said in a statement announcing the request for all but a single county.
Though Wyoming's nickname is the Cowboy State and it was largely settled by ranchers, agriculture now accounts for a small fraction — less than 5 percent — of Wyoming's energy-driven economy, with coal and natural gas production dwarfing all other industries.
But in a state where nearly half the land is publicly owned, farmers and ranchers play a key role in preserving Wyoming's open spaces and supporting its abundant wildlife, indirectly boosting the state's second-ranking industry of tourism.
Statewide, ranchers have lost about half of their pasture grass and hay production on non-irrigated lands this year, and producers in affected areas were "really struggling," said Doug Miyamoto, deputy director for the Wyoming Department of Agriculture.
"It's scary, because you don't have the production to even feed your animals," said Krista Macy, whose family has been farming and raising cattle for 100 years north of Pine Bluffs, in southwestern Wyoming, near the Nebraska state line.
Miyamoto said the southern part of Wyoming was suffering the most from lack of spring rain.
"There has been a lot of liquidation of cattle this year in Wyoming based on how far behind we were on precipitation," Miyamoto said.
Data compiled by the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, shows that more than two thirds of the topsoil in Wyoming was now rated as either too dry for normal plant growth or too dry for any growth or seed germination.
Though federal disaster assistance may help drought-stricken Wyoming ranchers in the short run, bouncing back after such a dry year can be tough over the long term, both financially and emotionally, Macy said.
Moving cows between pastures as grass dies and hauling water as springs dry up is about all some ranchers can do, she said.
"That's the hardest part, to watch your animals suffer," she said. "They're your world."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)