Trying to head off another crisis on the Plains, National Guardsmen used heavy equipment and ropes Friday to carry off bloated, rotting animal carcasses before they foul drinking water and spread disease.
Almost 90,000 cattle died in the flooding and the spring blizzard that hit during the past two weeks, and as many as 1,000 carcasses remain in ponds, creeks and sloughs.
National Guardsmen, working with state and federal agriculture officials, slogged through the mud to remove the dead animals.
“We only have a very small window here with the temperatures going up … to extricate those carcasses,” said Sgt. 1st Class Rob Keller.
Illnesses such as E-coli and salmonella can result if runoff carries organisms from the rotting flesh, said Gary Haberstroh, an environmental engineer with the state Health Department.
The carcasses of some 120 of Jim Bitz’s cattle were pulled one by one from a flooded creek five miles away from his ranch in Napoleon.
“You kind of get like a knot in your stomach,” he said as the carcasses were dragged to shore. “I still look at this and can’t believe it.”
The cows had wandered from Bitz’s ranch during the early April blizzard. Disoriented, they sauntered with the wind, eventually onto frozen Beaver Creek, and apparently fell through the ice. The creek, swelled by record snowmelt, has nearly tripled in size.
Chris Pool, an animal damage controller with the U.S. Agriculture Department, helped pull dead animals from the creek.
“They’re all sticking out of the water because they’re all bloated,” he said after jumping out of a boat used to drag the animals to dry ground.
Insurance will cover Bitz’s lost cattle. But he’s unsure who will pay the costs of removing the carcasses and sending them to a rendering company for use in products such as dog food and glue. State and federal officials were discussing the issue Friday.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said Friday the Federal Emergency Management Agency has agreed to pay three-quarters of the costs incurred by the state.
But the remaining expenses will have to be covered by either the state or individual ranchers.
Worse off are the people in eastern North Dakota, where the flood of the century continues to rage, he said.
“Our house isn’t flooded,” Bitz said. “I’m thankful.”