Merced County’s most well-known cowboy strapped on his boots Monday and flew out to one of the most remote areas of the county to feed a hungry herd of stranded cows.
Sheriff Vern Warnke worked with Merced County’s Office of Emergency Services to drop two tons of hay to a herd of about 30 cows who are stranded on an island near Hopeton because of flooding from the Merced River.
The cows have been stranded on the island since January when heavy rains pummeled California and prompted flood watches in the county. The cattle rancher kept an eye on the herd as they grazed on the grass, but as the months passed the water never subsided, creating an island of about 10 acres.
Since January, the cows munched up all the grass and grew thin.
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“These ranchers were in dire straights to try and get these animals fed,” said Warnke, who on a typical day wears boots, wranglers, a plaid shirt, with his badge around his neck. He rarely is seen without his signature cowboy hat. “I’m a huge animal lover, so I’m not going to let any animal go hungry.”
After working with OES to map out the island’s location, sheriff’s officials used the department’s Huey helicopter to deliver the hay to the hungry cows.
“I was by myself with my 30 new best friends,” Warnke said. “These cows were very appreciative.”
Warnke said the cows, used for breeding purposes, each were about 300 pounds underweight. The water surrounding the island was too swift and too cold for the ranchers to access by four-wheel drive or on horseback.
“It’s horrible to think about trying to get onto that island,” Warnke said. “Whatever we can do to help, we’re gonna.”
In the coming weeks, officials have plans to deliver additional 1,110-pound hay bales to the cows.
The sheriff said the delivery wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for interagency relationships. During the flood watches in January and February, the sheriff’s office, OES, Merced Irrigation District, the Army Corps of Engineers and more worked together to build a flood-fighting and prevention strategy.
For months, the Merced River water levels have been at historic highs as MID makes room in Lake McClure for the record amount of snowmelt from the Sierra.
Jeremy Rahn, the county’s deputy director for OES, said the call about the cows first was made to the Army Corps of Engineers and trickled down the pipeline to his office.
“Immediately, I contacted the sheriff directly,” Rahn said. “The sheriff said, ‘Absolutely, we will do whatever we can do.’ And then we went 100 mph to get these cows fed.”
Rahn urges county residents to stay clear of waterways since many are running at high levels. The water is too swift, too cold and too dangerous for swimmers or rafters.
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477