BILLINGS - During a winter storm in January, when the temperature plunged to 26 below and the wind was blowing, a group of cows seeking shelter went over a bank and broke through ice on the Yellowstone River in Rosebud County.
All of the 52 Angus cows belonging to the Schiffer Ranch Co. drowned.
The carcasses are now washing up on sandbars along an 11-mile stretch of river from Rosebud to Hathaway, prompting reports to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. A few carcasses have turned up on a sandbar by a highway rest stop near Hathaway.
Joe Schiffer, who ranches with his family by Rosebud, said he's willing to retrieve the carcasses if he can get to them safely. So far, nobody has called him with the location of any of the cows, he said.
Schiffer reported the Jan. 7 incident immediately to the DEQ. The biggest worry, he said, was for the water quality of communities that draw drinking water from the Yellowstone if the carcasses got bunched up and began decaying.
Chad Anderson, with the DEQ's enforcement section, said he has been working with Schiffer on the matter. The DEQ, he said, notified downstream communities that have water intakes to be aware of possible increased organic material from the cows and to treat the water more aggressively if that happens. So far, no one has reported any increases in organic material, he said.
Livestock can end up in rivers and there is not much the agency can do, Anderson said.
"But 50 is extremely rare," he said. "The vultures get a meal. We wish there was another way to look at it. If this was 20 head of deer, we wouldn't do anything. This is just an unfortunate circumstance."
Schiffer, whose family has ranched for almost 55 years, said all the cows were pregnant and were among 181 head owned by the family.
The cows apparently tried to use the bank as a shelter belt, Schiffer said, and went onto the ice in a bend where the river is deep.
"Too many got out there and that was it. We've never had that trouble before," he said.
When the cows didn't show up for feeding, Schiffer went looking from an airplane and found them.
Schiffer said he's not going to be able to retrieve carcasses from sandbars.
"The birds are going to eat on them and I imagine the catfish are going to get fat," he said.