The Race Is On to Save Thousands of Snow-Bound Cattle in Colorado

As a column of National Guard trucks rolled up to Billy Jack Hawkins' home on the plains, the 57-year-old rancher stomped his boots in the snow and marveled at the blizzard it had taken the troops more than four hours to dig through.

"It's a bad one," the bearded Hawkins said of the snowstorm that buried his ranch and his only way back to town — 20 miles up the road — for six days. "We were locked in. No way out."

Hundreds of National Guard members this week joined local and state officials spread across southeastern Colorado hunting for stranded ranchers and their multibillion-dollar herds of cattle.

Helicopters delivered hundreds of bales of hay across Colorado's rangeland, while ranchers in smaller copters landed near frozen streams and broke up the ice with sledgehammers so their livestock could drink.

The situation was getting dire for many of the tens of thousands of cattle in eastern Colorado and the Kansas and Nebraska plains, a week after the blizzard dumped up to 3 feet of snow.

The animals typically can survive only five to 10 days without food or water in good conditions, Colorado state veterinarian John Maulsby said.

There was no estimate of how many have died, but Lt. Darin Overstreet of the Colorado Air National Guard said helicopter crews have not seen huge numbers of dead animals. He said southeastern Colorado ranchers may have lost 3 to 5 percent of their herds, but it was not immediately clear how many animals that would be.

There were dozens of National Guard missions, including the convoy that worked late into Wednesday night digging out Hawkins and picking up 100 bales of hay he was offering to help out other ranchers. Seven Guardsmen in a big military truck and two Humvees joined a civilian who operated a front-end loader.

"It's like the Arctic tundra out there," Staff Sgt. Joshua Lanham said as he drove one of the Humvees down Colorado State Highway 101 south of the ranching town of Las Animas.

The road was cleared to just one rough lane amid the snow, which stretched to the horizon and created six-foot drifts in places. Icy wind and blowing snow further complicated the job.

Chains on Lanham's Humvee snapped repeatedly. The rough road tossed supplies around the inside of the truck, empty Mountain Dew cans and Twinkies flying. Stalled pickups and semis, mired in snow, blocked the path.

With help from a front-end loader and lots of pushing and shoveling, the convoy finally reached Hawkins, his wife, Donita, and their stranded menagerie: ducks, geese, pheasants, dogs, lost cows and a one-eyed collie named Lance.

The job of clearing roads continues in many rural areas, and the road to Hawkins' ranch wasn't the only place where front-end loaders were needed for work plows couldn't handle.

The storm, blamed for at least 13 deaths, also has left utility crews in sections of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and Oklahoma working around the clock to restore power to tens of thousands of homes and businesses, a job that could take weeks. About 11,000 utility customers were without power statewide in Nebraska, and more than 12,000 were in the dark in Kansas.

Near Hawkins' ranch, clearing the road was only the first part of the job.

Lanham, 25, and Staff Sgt. William Adams, 47, helped in what appeared to be a simple side mission: Bust through a small drift to let rancher Teresa Garcia reach her hungry cows.

Not so fast.

The gate was stuck, bent either by anxious cattle or the force of snow that had piled up nearly to its top in last week's blizzard. Adams fashioned a clamp from a ratcheting load strap as Lanham tried to push the heavy metal gate into place with the Humvee.

The gate was unlatched and the digging began, but the aggravations weren't over. Lanham's Humvee bogged down in the snow as he tried to clear the drift, and it took tense minutes pounding the gas pedal to rock it free. Another Humvee slipped off the ranch road and sunk into snow halfway up the door, stuck. More digging, a tow strap, pulling, struggling in the cold.

The team returned to Hawkins' ranch as the rest of the convoy loaded up the hay.

Hawkins said that with a 30-day supply of food, fresh eggs from his chickens and a satellite dish, he hadn't been worried about being stranded. But he hoped the experience would convince his wife they needed that backup generator he had been eyeing, and those snowshoes he saw in a catalog.

No other homes, not even the lights from town, were visible in the dark from the ridge by his home. Just snow and sky and the moon.

"It's beautiful out here, I love it," said Hawkins, whose family has been here as far as he can trace back. "But it's not for people who need pavement."

On the ride home, bashing along the rutted road, Adams noted the sign for Purgatoire River bridge.

"There's the Purgatory River. I knew we were getting close to hell," he joked. "And it's definitely frozen over."