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Crop Loss, Fishing Bans: Montana Becomes Epicenter of Drought in West

The state’s governor declared a drought disaster across 20 counties while a National Weather Service official acknowledged a long-range forecast missed the mark.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Smoke rises from the Lolo Peak fire in Montana as seen from an airplane on August 18, 2017. The wildfire has expanded to 28 thousand acres, prompting evacuations. The state has been hit with both wildfires and drought this year.CITIZENSIDE/Jay Cline

A wet winter in 2017 pulled most of the West out of a long and serious drought. But one state was left behind: Montana.

Andy Fjeseth, a spokesperson for the Montana Department of Agriculture, said some officials are calling the drought a “100-year event” in the state. It has hit the eastern part of the state particularly hard.

Wheat and hay farmers have lost crops, he said, because normal spring rains never came. Many cattle ranchers have been forced to sell off their animals early or move them long distances to find decent grazing conditions.

In May, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock declared a drought emergency across 20 counties in the eastern half of the state.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock declared a drought emergency across 20 counties in the eastern half of the state. (National Drought Monitor)

“It’s really one of the worst drought-type conditions that we’ve experienced in a long time,” said Fjeseth. “They’re also kind of referring to this as a ‘flash drought’ because it came on so hard and so fast.”

Eastern Montana received good fall rains in 2016, which helped farmers prepare for the winter and the year ahead. But then the moisture tap shut off completely. Winter snows were light so there was little snowmelt to saturate the topsoil. Then spring and early summer – normally the wettest season – was almost completely dry.

The National Drought Mitigation Center recently shifted a large swathe of northeastern Montana into exceptional drought status, the most severe category – and it bleeds across into parts of North Dakota, as well. Some 17,500 square miles of Montana are now categorized as suffering exceptional drought.

Deborah Bathke, a climatologist at the drought center, said parts of the state have received 25 percent or less of normal precipitation since February. Conditions have been worsened by warmer-than-normal temperatures and strong winds.

“With those high temperatures, we get more evaporation and really a drying out of the soils and the plants,” she said. “We can think of it kind of like a blowdryer, almost, with the heat and extra wind.”

To make matters worse, the same Montana region hammered by drought also experienced the largest wildfire in the nation so far this year. The Lodgepole Complex fire burned more than 270,000 acres across Garfield and Petroleum counties in July and was only recently contained.

The fire destroyed 16 homes and at least 16 other buildings. It also burned up a lot of important rangeland, 55 percent of which was privately owned, said Eric Miller, Garfield County agricultural extension agent.

“For those people involved, many of them lost all their pasture, all their grass for the year,” he said. “It’s been devastating. It wiped out a lot of country, wiped out a lot of grass.”

Miller said Garfield County normally gets 11–13in precipitation in a 12-month period.

“Since the beginning of the year, we basically had zero effective rain,” he said. “We’ve had a few tenths [of an inch] here and there that haven’t done anything. This is probably the longest, most destructive that we’ve seen, where we have had almost nothing all summer.”

Results include “greatly reduced” yields from wheat and barley crops, he said, which depend on spring and summer rains. Hay production to feed livestock is also down sharply. Prices have gone “through the roof” on any hay that is available, Miller said.

To help cattle ranchers trying to hang on through the drought, the state launched a first-ever hay lottery to distribute donated hay to feed livestock. The Michigan-based nonprofit Ag Community Relief is coordinating the effort, which includes North Dakota and South Dakota.

“There’s been a pretty major outpouring of support,” Fjeseth said. “Part of the problem is there are lots people wanting to donate hay, but not as many folks able to donate transportation of that hay. So we’re working to connect donors and transportation.”

The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge opened some land for grazing to ranchers affected by the Lodgepole fire. Some of this land had been closed to grazing under a program meant to improve wildlife habitat.

The state also closed several waterways to fishing due to the drought, to ease strain on fish caused by warm water conditions. These include the Bitterroot, Clark Fork, Smith and Gallatin rivers.

What caused the drought in Montana and the Dakotas remains unclear.

“We didn’t see that coming,” acknowledged Dave Miskus, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center in Maryland, which prepares long-range forecasts based on analyzing historical patterns and computer modeling.

“It was hard to forecast drought developing at the time, way back in March, when all the dynamic models were suggesting a slightly wetter than normal spring and summer,” he said. “There’s something strange going on. Our typical signals for long-range forecasting aren’t coming together. So there’s obviously other factors we have to start to look at.”

Miller hopes conditions improve as the season transitions into fall. There is little sign of that yet, however: Some rain has begun to move through South Dakota, but it hasn’t reached North Dakota or Montana.

“The general feeling is we’ll get through the next month or so, but then something’s going to have to change,” Miller said. “The situation is getting bad. If we don’t get some rain here quickly, the big concern is what are we going to do for next year?”

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