Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte addresses DNRC Fire Protection Bureau Chief Matt Hall at the 2023 fire season outlook meeting on July 18, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)
Federal drought disaster designations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary had already been in place for several Montana counties for nearly a month when Gov. Greg Gianforte asked the secretary for drought disaster designations in some of the same counties earlier this week.
According to the Governor’s Office, he made this week’s request based on a federal drought website that said earlier this week there were no primary designations in place, though USDA employees confirmed that was due to a website code error and that designations for seven of the 11 counties he requested them for had been made in late June. A letter to Gianforte and published USDA data confirmed there were already designations in place.
Gianforte wrote the letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday asking him to designate 11 counties as primary drought disaster areas, which would make them eligible for federal emergency loan assistance: Flathead, Lincoln, Glacier, Toole, Sanders, Lake, Pondera, Mineral, Missoula, Ravalli and Sheridan counties.
However, Vilsack had already granted a secretarial disaster designation for seven of those counties on June 26, according to a letter he sent to the governor and a USDA news release. Vilsack’s designation included Glacier, Lake and Pondera counties as primary designations and Choteau, Liberty, Sanders, Toole, Flathead, Missoula and Teton counties as contiguous designations.
Gianforte’s new request added Lincoln, Mineral, Ravalli and Sheridan counties to the ask for drought disaster designations but did not include Choteau, Liberty or Teton counties.
Another difference between the new request and what was already in place is the governor asked that all 11 counties receive primary designations, though both primary and contiguous counties often are both eligible for drought disaster relief, according to the USDA. In theory, the primary designations for the 11 counties would expand the number of contiguous counties covered as well.
The Republican governor said the low snowpack from last winter, which melted quickly this spring, and the hot, dry conditions northwest Montana has seen this summer made it “imperative” the USDA provide relief through livestock and conservation programs to respond to severe drought.
He said the state anticipates drought conditions will continue to get worse and cited extremes already seen in that area of the state – including the low flows on the Flathead River, low Flathead Lake levels, and the prediction of an above-average fire season – as reasons federal help would be needed.
“Relief is needed as swiftly as possible, particularly for our agricultural producers, who are seeing impacts to forage and stock water availability due to drought conditions and low water levels,” Gianforte wrote to Vilsack.
There is a fast track for USDA drought natural disaster declarations if a county, during the growing season, experiences severe drought for eight or more straight weeks or if they experience extreme or exceptional drought based on U.S. Drought Monitor standards.
The disaster designations allow farmers in primary and contiguous counties who meet eligibility requirements to be considered for Farm Service Agency emergency loans if they apply for them within eight months of the designation. The loans are granted based on the extent of farm production losses and the ability of the farmer to pay back the low-interest loans.
After the Governor’s Office sent out a news release on Tuesday highlighting the new request to Vilsack, the Daily Montanan asked the office if it was aware of the designations issued in June and provided a news release and screenshot of data from the USDA showing there were already designations in place.
A spokesperson for the office responded by noting that the National Integrated Drought Information System’s website for Montana listed zero counties with primary USDA disaster declarations.
“According to the dashboard last updated on 7/18/23 on drought.gov, zero counties in Montana have USDA Disaster Designations,” spokesperson Kaitlin Price said in an email.
On Wednesday, Molly Woloszyn, the regional drought information coordinator for the National Integrated Drought Information System, said the box on the website that showed there were “zero” designations on that page was due to a website coding error involving NOAA and USDA data. She said the issue had been corrected.
“I am glad the Governor’s office is using the Drought.gov page for Montana, but we also want to acknowledge that the USDA is the official source and the agency that is authorized to designate counties as disaster areas – as we note on the data source page,” Woloszyn said in an email.
Additionally, a USDA spokesperson confirmed the June 26 designation letter from Vilsack and said on Wednesday afternoon the department was reviewing Gianforte’s most recent request.
“The Department is working to respond to the request as quickly as possible. We also recommended producers reach out to their local USDA Service Center to learn what options they may have available through USDA’s existing suite of disaster assistance programs to help offset losses,” read an emailed statement sent by UDSA spokesperson Allan Rodriguez.
A spokesperson for the Governor’s Office did not respond by Thursday afternoon to questions sent Wednesday afternoon seeking clarification on whether the governor was aware some of the counties already had disaster designations issued and how his most recent letter might expand the number of counties covered.
This week’s update from the U.S. Drought Monitor showed the severe drought that has covered most of Flathead County for weeks expanded over the past week into southern Lincoln County and most of Sanders County. It also expanded eastward into Toole County and more of Glacier County.
The severe drought has been in place for northwest Montana for the better part of the past three months, which led state and federal officials to issue Stage 1 fire restrictions this week that kick in on Saturday.
Montana’s U.S. senators and one of its congressmen jumped onto Gianforte’s request to press the federal government toward action.
“I fully support Governor Gianforte’s disaster declaration and hope to see the Biden administration act quickly to approve the request and provide relief for hard-working Montanans,” Republican Sen. Steve Daines said in a statement.
Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale said in a tweet it is “critical the Biden Administration approve Governor Gianforte’s request in a timely manner.” Democratic Sen. Jon Tester similarly said it was “critical the Biden Administration steps up” to deliver resources and said the “request is the right move” with the Flathead area experiencing drought.
The Gianforte administration and some of the federal delegation have been pressing the federal government for responses to the drought, fast-melting snowpack, and low water levels in northwest Montana for weeks – conditions exacerbated by climate change, according to renowned Montana climate scientist Steve Running.
A multiagency team earlier this month declined an operations plan proposal to try to boost historically low water levels at Flathead Lake, citing concerns the plans would not be effective and could create further problems for Hungry Horse Reservoir next year, after calls from Gianforte, Daines, and Republican Congressman Ryan Zinke to act.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks added fishing closures to small portions of the Clark Fork River in and northwest of Missoula Wednesday because of temperatures exceeding normal ranges for protected bull trout. It also said last week it was considering first-ever restrictions and possible closures on the Flathead River and others in northwest Montana because of historically low river flows and warming waters not suitable for native bull and cutthroat trout.
Also last week, a fire weather meteorologist told Gianforte and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation representatives in a fire season briefing he expected hot and dry conditions to stick around through at least next month in the already drought-stricken counties of northwest Montana.
In issuing Stage 1 fire restrictions in northwest Montana starting Sunday in Flathead, Lincoln and Sanders counties, along with state and federal land in the area, state officials said they hoped the restrictions would reduce fire risk during this period of “high to extreme danger” and said the restrictions would be in place until further notice.
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