This summer, I spent my time working in prairie streams sampling fish, amphibians and reptiles in eastern Montana. Most of my time was spent hiking into a drainage, where a stream was supposed to be, and instead seeing cracked, solid dirt. If you spent the summer in Montana, you may have noticed the exceptionally dry weather, and consequential wildfires across the state. According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, 98.7% of Montana is experiencing a severe drought. The system labels this stage as “D2,” and defines it as, “Hay and crop yields are low; hay quality is poor; subsoil moisture is nonexistent. Fire count and danger are high; air quality is poor, with dust and smoke. Livestock ponds are low or dry; water quality is monitored; wells are stressed.” Even worse than D2 is D3, extreme drought, and D4, exceptional drought. 73% of Montana is labeled as D3, and 13.8% is considered D4.
Montana has a long history with drought. The state's worst period was in the 1930s, when the whole West and Midwest experienced major D4 conditions, leading to the moniker, “Dust Bowl.” Since the U.S Drought Monitor began operation in 2000, the longest recorded drought in Montana (D1-D4) was 307 weeks, from May 2000 to March 2006. In 2017, Montana experienced another intense drought, in which 25% of Montana land was categorized as D4. Although worse droughts have hit Montana, scientists, politicians and local activists fear that drought conditions, and subsequent wildfires will exponentially increase as global temperatures rise.
To prevent more wildfires, the state of Montana uses fire bans. Fire bans are formally known as fire restrictions and there are three stages of fire restriction. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, stage 1 includes a ban on all campfires and smoking cigarettes in any type of flammable environment. Stage 2 includes the restrictions of stage 1, while also banning off road use of motorized vehicles, as well as a curfew on the use of internal combustion engines, torches and explosives. The final stage is closure, which is defined by the state each time the closure stage is reached. Gallatin County and surrounding areas implemented stage 1 or 2 fire bans for most of the summer. The fire ban was recently rescinded, and nearby counties are expected to follow suit, according to a press release from the county commission.
Here in Bozeman, you may also have noticed residents tapping into the environmentally-minded culture of Bozeman to conserve water resources. Lawn signs sprouted up around town or in parks with information on the drought in Bozeman. These are a part of the Water Smart Bozeman campaign, a way to help citizens better understand where Bozeman’s water is coming from, that there’s a limited supply of it and most importantly how to help preserve the water we do have. Taking measures such as installing low flush toilets, creating more “water wise” landscaping and planting drought-tolerant shrubs are all measures the city of Bozeman implemented over the summer.
If you want to help out Montana, its natural environment and the many creatures that inhabit it, respect fire restrictions and do your part to stay updated on the problems. For more information, visit https://www.bozeman.net/government/water-conservation.