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Montana news about the environment, natural resources, wildlife, climate change and more.

Ranchers celebrate above-normal snowpack after years of drought

 Milk River Confluence in north-central Montana
National Park Service
Milk River Confluence in north-central Montana

The Milk River basin’s snowpack in north-central Montana sits at 250% of normal. That’s a major shot in the arm for local farmers and ranchers who have endured years of devastating drought.

It’s another busy morning for Marko Manoukian, “I just got done feeding some cows. Now I’m going to feed some buck sheep then go help the neighbor plow to his haystack,” Manoukian said.

According to Manoukian, who recently retired after over two decades as Phillips County’s Extension Service Agent, continued drought across the West and plains states has led to the lowest beef cow numbers in the U.S. since 1962.

Although it’s a bitterly cold start to spring at Manoukian’s home in Malta he’s thankful for the snow.

“You know, It was minus 8 this morning, but we have snow, and we haven’t had snow in three years or longer and so I’ll take it,” he said.

Montana’s Hi-Line is cow and wheat country. Local farmers and ranchers have always had to be resilient in the face of whatever Mother Nature throws at them. But the past several years have been particularly challenging. The spring of 2018 brought major flooding, which was followed by extreme drought.

Chinook’s Juli Anne Snedigar describes the past five years as “bleak.”

“We’ve had severe depletion of our subsoil moisture and topsoil moisture, horrible range conditions for the livestock,” Snedigar said. “What the drought didn’t take, the grasshoppers did.”

Snedigar is a Blaine County Montana State University Extension Service Agent.

“We keep saying it’s ‘next year country’ — next year will be better,” she said.

“Next year” may have finally arrived. TheU.S Drought Monitor shows varying degrees of drought throughout the state,but no signs of ‘extreme’ or ‘exceptional’ drought.

Malta’s Marko Manoukian says one wet winter and spring can’t magically make up for years of devastating soil moisture deficits.

“But it’s better than where we were. We’re way better off,” he said.

O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at
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