Snowpack up across Montana, but drought still hurting farmers, ranchers

By: - June 21, 2022 6:59 pm

A double rainbow near Box Elder Creek (Photo by Dennis Lingohr. Courtesy of the American Prairie Reserve).

The wet spring left snowpack well above 200 percent of an average year in every mountain range in Montana, but the heavy precipitation didn’t hit all parts of the state. Extreme drought persists in eastern and central Montana, and it has farmers and ranchers worried.

“Mother Nature is especially cruel here in Montana,” President of Montana Farmers Union and owner of a farm east of Great Falls Walter Schweitzer said. “Our production is going to be impacted, no doubt about it, even if it’s starting to rain now. For many crops, it’s too late. Maybe we’ll harvest something, but it’s not going to be a bumper crop by any stretch of the imagination.”

Since at least last June, farmers and ranchers have tried to grow crops and raise cattle in a drought. Meanwhile, over a week of heavy precipitation across the state led to record-breaking flooding last week.

The arrival of the summer on Tuesday brings fewer prospects of rain hitting farm or ranch land any time soon, and it has most of the state drying up for the next week and shifting to 80-degree days, according to the National Weather Service.

“It’s not looking like a record-breaking year,” Cody Moldan, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls, said. “You could have daily records, but it’s not looking exceptionally hot.”

The Weather Service predicts flood levels that devastated homes and business including in the Yellowstone National Park area will gradually decrease with the incoming dry spell, and the wet spring bodes well for water supply as Montana rolls into summer. Snowpack levels will drop off throughout July, and runoff in high elevations will continue in the coming weeks.

Although meteorologists cannot predict the potential severity of the fire season at this point, the forecast for average summer conditions and continued runoff from snowpacks have positive implications for avoiding burns in some areas.

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“Snowpack is definitely above normal for this time of year, and there’s a lag time between these wet spring conditions and how fast they can dry out,” senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula Bob Nestor said. “That can help close the window of the potential length of the fire season.”

However, other factors could increase fire potential. If the forecasted dry conditions continue for an extended period, lighter fuels like grasses and shrubs that grew during the wet spring could dry quickly. Additionally, thunderstorms coming up from the strong monsoon season in the southwest could spark burns outside of the high elevation areas.

“The mountains and forests have seen the precipitation they’ve needed, but outside of that, I can’t predict it,” Moldan said. “We could go through a really dry July and have a bunch of dry thunderstorms. That could totally blow away all the precipitation we’ve had.”

But not all parts of the state felt the effects of the wet spring. According to Moldan, much of Montana east of the continental divide has seen one to three inches below normal precip since June of last year.

This lack of moisture has especially impacted farmers and ranchers in the Golden Triangle, the agricultural hotspot between Shelby, Havre and Great Falls, which is considered in extreme to exceptional drought by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Last year, grain crops were below average from many production areas under drought, and according to Schweitzer, conditions have not improved since last June. His farm is 8 to 10 inches behind his desired precipitation for the year, and he hopes for more rain in the coming weeks. 

“If we don’t get any more rain and the temperature heats up, then there’s going to be a lot of farmers that won’t have a crop to harvest,” Schweitzer said. “Some areas picked up moisture in this last storm system, but when you’re four to six inches behind, a half inch doesn’t put the fire out.”

As Montanans elsewhere in the state enjoy clear and warm conditions in the coming weeks, Schweitzer encouraged them to reach out to those in the agricultural community, people the dry season will impact the most.

“Lots of farmers and ranchers are feeling the stress from watching their crops burn up and being forced to sell a cow herd they’ve spent 30 years developing,” Schweitzer said. “If you have family involved in farming or ranching, give them a call and let them vent. They’re going through stressful times right now.”



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Emily Tschetter
Emily Tschetter

Emily Tschetter is a junior studying journalism and political science at the University of Montana. She was born and raised in Billings and grew up surrounded with music between going to concerts and playing cello. She worked at the Montana Kaimin, University of Montana's independent student newspaper, as a news reporter last school year and will start as the news editor in the fall. In her free time Emily loves building up her vinyl collection, being overly critical of movies, going to cheap diners with friends and enjoying music whenever she can.