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Firefighters work on the Sartin Draw Fire in southeastern Montana. BLM photo.

MT expands hay lottery as drought, fire situation worsen

HELENA, Mont. — As wildfires continue to burn grasslands and forests across Montana and drought continues to worsen, the Montana Department of Agriculture has expanded its hay lottery.

Drought conditions gradually have worsened across Montana throughout the summer, and the Sept. 7 release of the U.S. Drought Monitor for the first time had the entire state in some category of drought condition, from abnormally dry to the most severe category, exceptional drought. More than a quarter of the state now is considered in exceptional drought.

Andy Fjeseth, communications officer for the Montana Department of Agriculture, says since the fires are still burning in many areas, no dollar figure can be attached to disaster evaluations. But anecdotally, the fires have been "devastating" to many in agriculture, he says.

The Lodgepole Complex fire, which burned earlier this summer in eastern Montana, was the largest and most damaging fire to ranchers thus far, burning more than 270,000 acres of what was largely pasture and grass.

Many of the fires still burning are in forests of western Montana, but Kori Anderson, spokesperson for the Montana Stockgrowers Association, says there have been cattle moved off of pastures in the west, and she has heard of approximately 50 animals killed in a fire in the northwest part of the state.

While animal losses have been minimal considering the acres burned, losses still are adding up.

"The largest impact has definitely been loss of feed, hay, grass and fencing," she says.

Fjeseth says calls from people wanting to donate hay to the state have increased in recent weeks, leading the Department of Agriculture to expand its hay lottery. The state has participated in a lottery with North Dakota and South Dakota, but since the hay in that program was delivered to Fargo, N.D., it limited its effectiveness for Montana producers.

In the new program, announced Sept. 7, hay will be housed at Miles Community College in Miles City, Mont., and the Montana Stockgrowers Foundation will help coordinate cash donations for transportation costs. The Department of Agriculture will draw for the hay in October, and producers who already applied for the past lottery and did not receive hay will be eligible for subsequent drawings.

"The outpouring of support for Montana's ag community has been nothing short of amazing. We saw a need to help coordinate donations, so we decided to expand the lottery," Montana Department of Agriculture Director Ben Thomas said in a statement.

Fjeseth says the department has received calls regarding hay donations from numerous states, including Iowa, Utah, Wisconsin and Idaho.

Anderson says one of Stockgrowers' directors almost lost his ranch to a fire but stayed up all night to save it. Ranchers have worked alongside neighbors on fire lines. And donations and support have poured in from across the country.

"It really shows the spirit of agriculture," she says.

Those interested in making donations of hay/feed or transportation should call MDA's Fire & Drought Assistance Hotline at 1-844-515-1571. Those interested in making a cash donation should call the Montana Stockgrowers Foundation at 406-442-3420.

Livestock producers interested in applying for the hay lottery must submit an application at agr.mt.gov/Hay-Lottery-2017. Eligible producers must be from a D2, D3 or D4 or fire-affected county and own at least 25 animal unit equivalents of state-specific livestock. The latest drought monitor depicting the drought levels of specific counties may be found at droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?MT. The application deadline is Sept. 30.

Hay will be distributed in semi-load lots, with the next drawing in early October. If additional donations are taken in after that date, more drawings will occur. Selected producers will be responsible for arranging transportation of the hay from Miles Community College.

Anyone with questions about filling out the hay lottery application should call the Department of Agriculture's Fire & Drought Assistance Hotline at 1-844-515-1571.

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