Good Samaritan helps ranchers after Atlas

Farm Forum

After the early season blizzard struck the Black Hills region on October 4 and 5 killing thousands of cattle and other livestock, news reports have spotlighted the generous donations being made to the Rancher Relief Fund and the Heifers for South Dakota project.

While these contributions are helping to address the losses, the question remains: How are ranch families coping with the new “normal” they must adjust to after the storm?

On Dec. 4 – two months to the day after the devastating blizzard dubbed Atlas struck – I was privileged to be invited to a supper where Meade County (South Dakota) ranch families wanted to share their experiences and, more importantly, thank a Good Samaritan whom they view as a hero who helped them through the difficult weeks following the storm.

The five ranch couples included Jeff and Shelane Graham; Terry and Cheryl Hammerstrom and their son and daughter-in-law Clint and Lisa Hammerstrom; and Delbert and GeorgiAnn Cobb and their son and daughter-in-law Clint and Donelle Cobb. All ranch east of Sturgis in the remote rangeland along a 50 mile stretch between the tiny towns of Hereford, Red Owl and Alkali. While the families were familiar with each other as neighbors with adjacent summer pastures, they agreed that one silver lining since the storm is that going through this trying time together has forged a friendship among them.

Also joining our group for dinner was the guest of honor, Hime Bourk, and his wife Betty, who are semi-retired and live near Sturgis, as well as the NRCS District Conservationist in the Sturgis Field Office, Tanse Herrmann. The ranch families wanted to thank Bourk and Herrmann for the time they devoted to helping them retrieve and properly dispose of their cattle that perished in the storm.

The group gathered at the Dakotah Steakhouse in Rapid City – which they had selected because of the restaurant’s support of the local beef industry and their recent $21,000 contribution to the Rancher Relief Fund.

As we sat down to dinner, the two month anniversary date of the storm was noted, and one of the wives commented, “One month ago we couldn’t have done this.” The men nodded, and the somberness of what they’d been through since Oct. 4 was evident in their eyes.

Heartbreaking Scene

Throughout the evening, their stories came out in bits and pieces; mostly shared by the wives as their husbands nodded in agreement. I sensed that their healing process has begun, but it will still take time.

The families checked their cattle on Friday morning Oct. 4 as the heavy snow was accumulating, but with their summer pastures located many miles from ranch headquarters, the weather conditions were too bad to move them closer to home.

Although the families don’t pasture together, when the wind and snow stopped, they found that most of their herds had drifted to Delbert and GeorgiAnn Cobb’s pasture. Blinded by the snow, the cattle – about 1,200 head – perished. Some died in snow drifts and on the flats; others tumbled over steep cliffs and cut banks into Elm Creek, a large tributary to the Belle Fourche River.

To add insult to injury, when the snow melted and Elm Creek flooded on Oct. 11, many of the carcasses were dispersed along a zig-zag, stretch of the steep-banked creek, which would make the job of retrieving the carcasses even more difficult. Tanse Herrmann explains that though it was only a straight line distance of four miles, the switch backs in the creek made it equivalent to 10 stream miles. The elevation changes ranged from 150 feet from ridge tops to valley bottoms. The soil and pastures were too soft to begin the retrieval process, so they could do nothing but wait.

Jeff Graham shared, “It’s hard for your mess to be on someone else’s property.”

GeorgiAnn Cobb assured him that they did not mind.

As the group waited for the ground to firm up, it was also apparent that they felt overwhelmed by the task ahead of them. Not only did they have a very personal connection to all those animals that died, they knew retrieving the hundreds of carcasses seemed an impossible task because of the steep banks and sheer size of the area.

A Hero Helps

Somewhat by happenstance, Hime Bourk came to their rescue. Bourk was a client of Cheryl Hammerstrom, who has cut his hair for several years. When he learned the plight of these ranch families from Cheryl, Bourk, who grew up on a ranch near Blunt, S.D., was moved to help. Bourk has several pieces of large equipment and in early November began using chains and cables along with a wheel loader, telehandler, Polaris ranger, ATV, semi and trailer and pickup and trailer to pull the carcasses from ravines and the creek bottom.

The families also used some of their equipment and even rented a skidsteer and backhoe to retrieve and bury the cattle. They buried them in pits on the Cobb’s property that Tanse Herrmann with the NRCS had designated as environmentally appropriate locations.

Hime acknowledged that it was a difficult job because of the steep creek banks, lack of crossings along the creek, and the new deep silt deposits along the creek bottom. “It was very hard to get to the cattle.”

He spent five weeks retrieving and burying carcasses in more than two dozen pits in a seven square mile area (4,700 acres) of the Cobb’s rangeland. Hime lives about 70 miles round trip from the area and donated his time, fuel, and equipment to help the families.

Of his efforts, Hime humbly said, “I have some equipment. I did this to help people who got hurt real bad. I feel bad for them.”

To these families, Hime became their local hero – doing a job that seemed impossible. Early on, he did some of the carcass retrieval on his own – because it was still too gut-wrenching for the families to face. “He took charge and took the lead. We needed someone to do that,” Jeff Graham admitted.

Cheryl Hammerstrom agreed, noting that once Hime took the lead on the clean-up, it gave the rest of the group the fortitude to help with the process as well.

GeorgiAnn Cobb added, “It’s like any death, you can’t fully grieve until you bury them.”

Herrmann, who has known Hime for a decade, said helping others is simply part of Hime’s characteristically humble nature. He has put up hay for a friend for several years, and prior to helping these families, used his equipment to help another ranch friend collect and bury 300 head that died in the storm.

The group agreed that Hime’s generous example has reinforced the lesson of helping someone even if you hardly know them. Hime noted, “My intention was to help them through it. I just hope bankers will help them work through this as well.”

Lisa Hammerstrom views Hime’s help as “an inspiration,” and regarding the whole situation said, “When we buried it, we buried it. We’ve got to move on.”

Moving Forward

As these families adjust to the losses they’ve experienced, Cheryl Hammerstrom says, “We are so thankful there was no loss of human life. What dies in the corral or pasture can be replaced, and we need to keep that in perspective.”

In the days and weeks since the storm, these families said the simple heartfelt phone calls, prayers and donations – as well as kind acts like those by Hime – were all appreciated and have helped their spirits.

Shelane Graham recounts that having her neighbors there helping with the clean-up and burial of the carcasses also made it easier. “I remember one day GeorgiAnn and Delbert were there helping with our mess. They had already buried theirs, and they didn’t have to be there, but they knew what it felt like, and they were there giving us support.”

Graham is also appreciative for the leadership, professionalism and compassion offered by Herrmann with the NRCS office. “He’s been an encouragement,” she says.

These families also agreed that faith in God has been integral to getting through the difficulties this storm has caused their families and their livelihoods.

Some of the couples have received heifers donated through the Heifers for South Dakota program. Shelane Graham calls them their “herd from heaven.”

Lisa Hammerstrom called the heifers they received “a nice surprise.” She and husband Clint were very humbled by it because she says there are so many others who also lost so much.

As the evening drew to a close, GeorgiAnn Cobb came back to the silver lining from this painful experience, saying, “This brought us together as husbands and wives; as a community; and as neighbors…We’re going to be all right.”

She added, “We all have a number in our heads of what we lost, but what Hime did for us all is priceless. We are blessed to have been brought together, that is more important than money.”

As they concluded their evening together, GeorgiAnn then gave a poem to each family along with a plaque made by a local artist. Fittingly, the plaque and poem title read – “Ranching: Because that’s who we are and that’s what we do.”

Kindra Gordon is a freelance agricultural writer.