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In the northern California snow, stranded cows are getting emergency hay drops

Authorities spot cattle in the snow as they prepare to drop food.
Humboldt County Sheriff's Office
Authorities spot cattle in the snow as they prepare to drop food.

Rancher Robert Puga's cattle had been stranded and starving in the snow for weeks.

"We've never seen record snow like this, ever. And we're losing cattle left and right," Puga said.

His ranch is in the far north of California in Trinity County, in an area that's been hit especially hard by the state's recent wave of unprecedented snowfall.

The spring is calving season, and normally there's plenty of grass to feed newborns. But this year, the grass has been buried by up to seven feet of snow on some ranches. Puga was running out of hay when he got a call offering his herd a lifeline.

State, federal and local officials from neighboring Humboldt County had put together an emergency rescue operation to airdrop stranded cattle bales of hay. They called it "Operation Hay Drop."

Humboldt County Supervisor Michelle Bushnell says lots of cows in the area are going hungry because of the snow.

"They have absolutely no feed," she said. "There's no grass growing."

Bushnell, who also raises cattle, said she called other ranchers in the area to check in on them, and when she learned some hadn't been able to reach their cattle for over a week, she realized she had to do something.

A longtime Humboldt County rancher John Rice had told Bushnell that when the area faced a similar storm in 1989, they called in the Coast Guard to drop hay from helicopters to stranded cows.

CAL FIRE, California's state firefighting agency, has been involved in the operation.
/ Humboldt County Sheriff's Office
Humboldt County Sheriff's Office
CAL FIRE, California's state firefighting agency, has been involved in the operation.

So Bushnell called Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal and proposed a helicopter rescue for starving cows. Honsal went to the Coast Guard with the idea, and by midday Sunday, March 5 Operation Hay Drop was a go.

Authorities gathered coordinates of stranded herds, then flew out, looking for cows.

"The pilots are looking essentially for tracks in the snow," said Honsal. "They'll drop the hay in the area where they are, and what they found is [the cows] start coming out from under the trees and going towards the hay as soon as the helicopter takes off."

So far, Operation Hay Drop has been a success, said rancher Puga. The mission covers about 2,500 head of cattle over several miles.

"If it wasn't for them, I guarantee you 110% there'd be thousands of cattle that are dying. Thousands," Puga said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kai McNamee