By Carey Gillam
(Reuters) - The Plains remain tightly gripped by severe drought, according to a report issued Thursday, and fears mounted that another hot and dry year could lie ahead for the key crop-growing and cattle-grazing region.
Good rains have fallen in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas over the last few days, which should provide some improvement to dry soils and shrunken rivers and streams. But generally the worst-hit areas remain in sad shape, said Brian Fuchs, climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
"We're still looking at significant precipitation deficits," Fuchs said. "We really haven't seen anything that has changed the situation."
There are no forecasts for significant moisture ahead, he said.
"Where we're going to be April 1 I'm not sure, but looking at the forecasts I'm thinking through much of the central Plains that we're going to be talking about a lack of soil moisture and a lack of moisture in rivers and streams," Fuchs said.
Roughly 60.26 percent of the contiguous United States was in at least "moderate" drought as of January 8, a slight improvement from 61.09 percent a week earlier, according to a "Drought Monitor" report issued Thursday by a consortium of federal and state climatology experts.
But severe drought still blanketed 86.20 percent of the High Plains, unchanged from the week before, and 60.25 percent of the region was classified in extreme drought. The area in exceptional drought, considered the worst level of dryness, was steady at 26.99 percent.
Fully 100 percent of the land area in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma was engulfed in severe drought or worse, according to the Drought Monitor.
The drought is particularly hard on farmers and ranchers as significant swaths of agricultural land are stricken by the dry conditions.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 62 percent of U.S. wheat growing areas was suffering from drought as of January 8. That was unchanged from the prior week, according to data compiled by Brad Rippey, USDA meteorologist.
Sixty-three percent of the nation's hay areas were hampered by drought, improved slightly from 64 percent a week earlier. And about 72 percent of the nation's domestic cattle inventory was located in an area experiencing drought, a slight improvement from the 73 percent seen the prior week, according to Rippey.
The last week marked the 27th consecutive week that drought encompassed more than two-thirds of the domestic cattle inventory and at least 60 percent of the domestic hay acreage, he said.
The USDA on Wednesday declared 597 counties in 14 states as natural disaster areas after they suffered from at least severe drought for eight weeks in a row.
More than half of them, 351 counties, were in the Wheat Belt, running through the Plains from Texas to North Dakota. All but one of Oklahoma's 77 counties were termed disaster areas along with 88 of Kansas' 108 counties, 30 of Colorado's 64 counties and 157 of Texas' 254 counties.
Crop condition ratings for winter wheat were the worst on record in early December, the most recent figures available. Some experts said up to a quarter of the crop will be abandoned because of poor development.
The year 2012 was the warmest on record for the contiguous United States, beating the previous record by a full degree in temperature, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on Tuesday.
Forecasts show the country will likely continue to see above-normal temperatures in April, May and June.
(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; editing by Jim Marshall)