Windmill blades spin rapidly in the stiff wind above Justin Yazzie’s ranch in Whitehorse Lake, New Mexico, slicing through a clear blue sky smudged at the edges with darkening clouds.
Those clouds, though often hovering on the horizon, will not bring necessary rain, said Yazzie, Navajo.
“We don’t get rain anymore,” he said. “We just get wind and dust.”
Yazzie, 58, has ranched this land since 1978, when he helped his father round up calves and brand them. He took over full time in 1995 when his father died. Five generations have raised cattle on this 4,800-acre plot of land leased from the Navajo Nation, but what once was a way of life now is becoming a dying industry.
Yazzie knows this land like an old friend. He measures time by seasons, keeping track of the moisture and height of grass.
“Thirty years ago, the grass was up to my knees,” Yazzie said, gesturing at his land, barren from decades of drought. In some places, the grass barely reaches his ankles; in other areas, all the vegetation is gone.
Experts are calling weather patterns throughout the southwestern United States the worst drought in half a century, a so-called megadrought.
Some experts and ranchers are calling weather patterns throughout the southwestern United States the worst drought in half a century, a so-called megadrought, or a 75-year drought—one that could last for decades or longer. National Geographic in 2007 warned of a "perfect drought" like one that hit the area in the 12th century.
Others argue that drought conditions are hard to define in desert areas like the Southwest.
"You're in an arid climate," said David Miskus, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center. "In the desert, you don't have rivers flowing, you don't have a predictable rainy season. Yes, you're in a drought, but it's hard to determine what a drought is in the desert."
The National Climatic Data Center said in June that two thirds of the U.S. is gripped in drought, the worst since the 1950s. Counties in 31 states have been declared disaster areas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“If this is a 75-year drought, then we’re not even halfway through it,” said Yazzie, who lives in Farmington, New Mexico, and drives the 85 miles or so to his ranch every week.
The Navajo agriculture department does business much as the federal Bureau of Land Management does, leasing out acreage to individuals who agree to act as stewards of the land. The Navajo Nation holds lease agreements with private ranchers on 346,500 acres.
Both the Nation and the BLM determine grazing capacity based on the amount of vegetation needed to support one 1,000-pound cow and her calf for a month, said Jeff Tafoya, lead range management specialist for the Farmington, N.M., office of the BLM.
Ranchers are required to pay a per-head fee for use of the land, make improvements and take measures not to overgraze or allow natural resources to become depleted. That happens when too many animals consume too little vegetation.
Drought conditions have a domino effect on the cattle industry. A poor rainy season leads to drier pastures, and the existing grass lacks nutrients, Yazzie said. Ranchers have to pay for supplemental feed, and cattle often are smaller and sickly.
Unhealthy cows don’t produce calves, which bring in most of the money at the end of the season, selling per-pound at markets. Unhealthy cows also go to market earlier in the season.
The bottom line, Yazzie said, is that drought conditions can cut a rancher’s herd in half. Yazzie’s father raised 60 head of cattle on the land. Because of the drought, the same plot of land now only supports 25 head, Yazzie said.
The ranching industry boils down to one ingredient: rain, said Shane Hatch, an auctioneer at the Cow House in Kirtland, New Mexico, where Navajo ranchers from a 200-mile radius go to sell their livestock at the end of the season.
“Feed grows where the water is,” Hatch said. “If there’s no water, there’s no feed.”
For the past several years, Hatch has seen ranchers sell their livestock earlier in the season, and for a fraction of the price that the more robust animals can fetch. Sellers usually wait until September to take their livestock to auction, but drought conditions are forcing ranchers to sell in late July or August.
“The weather is making a difference,” said Vicki Atkinson, a brand inspector for the New Mexico Livestock Board. “People are having to sell because they don’t have the grass or feed.”
Reservations are hit harder that other areas when it comes to drought because of a widespread lack of infrastructure, Atkinson said. Many ranchers in this part of the country haul water for their animals.
A study released last year by the National Wildlife Federation found that climate changes disproportionately affect American Indians, who are more vulnerable because they rely more heavily on natural resources and live closer to the land. Tribes depend on the land and natural resources to sustain economic, cultural and spiritual practices, the study stated. They also face a relative lack of financial and technical resources needed to recover from extreme weather events.
“High rates of poverty and unemployment on reservations mean that tribes have limited resources to help their populations deal with weather and climate extremes, much less adapt to a changing climate over the long term,” the study stated. “Because tribes are restricted by reservation boundaries, their attachment to land and off-reservation treaty rights, moving to new areas to accommodate climate shifts is not a viable option.”
Climate changes are defined as ecological shifts that lead to weather extremes like severe drought and heat waves, wildfires and heavy rainfall and snowfall. Drought conditions have existed on Navajo land since 1995, Atkinson said, but ranchers have battled shortened rain seasons and increasing temperatures since 1978.
A lack of rain means some ranchers are getting out of the industry for good.
“What scares me is that they won’t buy back, they won’t replenish their herds when things get better,” Hatch said. “There’s a nationwide shortage of ranchers, and we need these guys to buy their herds back.”
Yazzie, for one, has no plans to stop ranching, even if there comes a day when he makes no profit from his herd.
“Why do we ranch?” he said. “We ranch because we’re Navajo. It’s in our blood. It’s who we are.”