Drought in Montana – and the West

Dry croplands in Montana. Billings Gazette photo, 2017

Last week, when I started writing this column, there were storm clouds building in the west.

 Many things we do are affected by weather. For me that includes a morning tennis group. After a morning of hitting tennis balls at each other, we plan on the next outing, “weather permitting, of course.” We’d be quite happy if the weather didn’t permit, because we need rain.

 Here in southwestern Montana, with average precipitation of around 11 inches, and 12.6 inches in Butte, we’re in a semi-arid area during normal years. Further, that also means it doesn’t have to be much below normal to become a near-critical drought situation.

 That near-critical situation presently includes most of Montana, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), a service of the National Oceanic and Atmospherics Administration (NOAA), or the weather bureau, if you prefer. The drought information is found at a website, www.drought.gov.

 According to NIDIS, 81.9 percent of Montana is currently “Abnormally Dry,” as indicated by “soil moisture is low, dryland crop germination is poor, pastures are dry, fire danger increases, streamflow is low, affecting recreational fishing.” Does that sound familiar?

 Over half of Montana, 54.2 percent, is in “Moderate Drought,” meaning livestock producers are supplementing grazing with hay, crops are stressed, and growth is poor. Fire restrictions are implemented. That describes most of our corner of Montana.

 30.7 percent of Montana is in “Severe Drought,” meaning subsoil moisture is non-existent, hay and crop yields are poor. Fire danger is high, air quality is poor with dust and smoke. Livestock ponds are low or dry and wells are stressed.

 Most of northeastern Montana, 15. 6 percent of the state, is in “Extreme Drought,” meaning crops are not harvestable, winter pasture is opened for summer grazing, soil has large cracks, and fields are bare. Livestock producers are hauling water and supplemental feed. They’re starting to cull livestock, or marketing early.

 Current precipitation puts 2021 in select company, though not in a good way. Montana’s precipitation to date makes 2021 the 7th driest year in the 127 years that records have been kept. May, usually a wet month, was the 15th driest May on record. 14 counties have already been designated as “disaster,” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Over 455,000 people, almost half the state’s population, are affected by drought.

 About the only parts of Montana not in the Abnormally Dry classification are south central counties, basically from Livingston to Billings, and some west central counties from Missoula to Great Falls.

 Regionally, the entire Missouri River Basin (MT, WY, ND, SD) is mostly in drought status, and almost all of North Dakota is in the Extreme Drought category. Large areas of the Pacific Northwest and Intermountain West are also in Extreme Drought.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to come up with a list of ramifications to fish and wildlife, and, consequently, to outdoor pursuits such as fishing and hunting, if conditions don’t improve.

 If we look at the Big Hole River, for example, we’re still in the spring runoff period, and a casual bystander might look at the river and think it looks like a big, brawling river. Perhaps, but at Maidenrock, last week, the river was running at a velocity of 2370 cubic feet per second (cfs). However, the long-term median flow is 3,890 cfs, almost twice current flows.

When spring runoff comes to an end, we can expect below average river flows, and if we have hot weather, fishing closures and restrictions will be the norm. Fingerling trout will find survival difficult, and fish populations, already in decline, will continue to suffer.

Similarly, wildlife habitat will be degraded, and as farmers and ranchers struggle through the crisis, private land wildlife habitat will likely be grazed or cut for hay.

 So, as we struggle through this hot, dry summer, you might be able to schedule many outdoor activities without worrying about the weather. So, go ahead and plan your picnics, family reunions, volleyball games, and the like. Just don’t plan on having bonfires, and don’t complain if you get rained out.

Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.

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