By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - It took less than an hour last month for a Montana wildfire to reduce Scott McRae's ranch to thousands of blackened acres devoid of the grasses that were to sustain hundreds of cattle.
"That is 500 mouths to feed with nothing to eat in sight," said McRae, 53, co-owner of a family ranch founded in the 1880s in southeastern Montana.
McRae is among scores of ranchers across the U.S. West whose grazing lands have been charred by blazes or ravaged by drought amid a regional shortfall of the alfalfa hay that could stave off starvation.
With drought affecting more than half the continental United States and less than a quarter of the nation's pasture and range rated good to excellent, cattle producers from Montana to Nevada are bracing for a rough season.
While some ranchers like McRae use private lands for grazing, many others pay modest fees to graze herds on acreage managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service under decades-old laws governing grazing on the West's vast federal lands.
But recent wildfires in states such as Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming have displaced thousands of cows from federal rangelands which may not be fit for grazing for years. Where range has not been destroyed, drought has lessened forage.
"We're going to run out of grass. It's shaping up to be scary," University of Idaho Extension Agent Rauhn Panting said.
The dire situation in the West follows an historic drought in the ranching state of Texas last year that devastated herds and cost the state's agriculture $7.6 billion, according to Texas A&M university. The size of the Texas cattle herd fell 11 percent in the last year as ranchers had to sell cattle or move them to other states, the U.S. Agriculture Department said.
While some areas of Texas have improved after receiving rain, the dryness has also spread north to the nation's breadbasket and threatens the worst drought since 1988 in the U.S. corn and soybean growing belt this summer, according to weather experts.
STARK CHOICE: FEED OR SELL
In the drought-stricken West, such forecasts spur fears among ranchers already advised by government land managers that they may be forced to vacate grazing grounds weeks, even months, earlier. Depending on the terrain, producers with seasonal grazing permits can place cows and unweaned calves on allotments as early as May and herd them home as late as October.
This year, cattlemen face a stark choice: feed or sell, said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.
The U.S. Agriculture department this week designated 1,016 counties in 26 states as "natural disaster areas" allowing farmers and ranchers in those areas access to low interest emergency loans from the federal government.
It is a hardship for those ranchers whose families have worked for generations to build a herd with certain traits but "you can't starve profit out of your mother cows," said University of Idaho Extension Educator Reed Findlay.
Producers who have been unable to locate or afford high-priced supplies of alfalfa hay have sent their cattle to sale barns in spring instead of autumn.
Torrington Livestock Markets in Wyoming recorded a steep rise in sales for cattle from such states as Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming in May and June, auctioning more than 36,000 head. That compares to roughly 5,500 for those months in an average year, co-owner Michael Schmitt said.
Small-scale ranchers with 30 to 50 cow-calf pairs have been hardest hit, he said. "They are at a loss with what they are going to do with their cattle," he added.
Compounding the strain are springs, streams and reservoirs that in some cases are running low or dry.
Desiree Seal, executive director of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, said ranchers have not struggled with similar conditions for generations.
"Everyone is having issues," she said.
For McRae, the Montana rancher whose pasturelands were destroyed by wildfire, choices narrow to the lesser of two evils. He has found temporary ground for his cows but he will sell much of the herd this fall. Neighbors are facing harder times, losing livestock as well as grasslands to the blaze.
"All that people here have lost ... it is devastating to me," he said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Jackie Frank)