Lingering snow in Western Montana’s mountains is delaying campground openings and creating unstable conditions on roads and trails, according to officials from the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service.
The officials are urging caution for recreationists, especially those on or near bodies of water and in avalanche areas.
Furthermore, the ever-present possibility of flooding remains a concern as the weather warms. Some Northwest Montana rivers have already reached flood warning or flood watch stages, with long-range forecasts anticipating floods.
“We’re just tapping now into some of the low-elevation snow,” Marty Whitmore with the National Weather Service’s Missoula office said in a briefing on May 13. “We haven’t even really touched the high-elevation snow.”
Ellen Blickhan, spokesperson for Glacier National Park, said Many Glacier, Cut Bank and Two Medicine campgrounds on the park’s east side will open on June 10, instead of the usual Memorial Day weekend opening. Park officials report 25-foot-deep drifts on Glacier’s east side.
Opening of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn has also been delayed by a week to June 10. Visitors with reservations at Swiftcurrent will be accommodated at other Glacier Park, Inc. properties, according to park officials.
Crews plowing Going-to-the-Sun Road have encountered snow depths ranging from six to 20 feet on the west side. Snow slides have crossed into the crews’ work zones, leaving behind piles of avalanche debris.
Park officials say avalanche dangers persist throughout the park and advise against hiker and biker travel past Avalanche Creek and Rising Sun. Crews cleared enough snow this week to open Going-to-the-Sun Road to vehicle traffic up to Avalanche Creek.
As the snow melts, Blickhan said park officials will monitor water levels in accordance with the park’s flood plan.
Blickhan said park crews are working diligently to prepare the snow-covered campgrounds and facilities for opening.
“A lot of times we can just drive up to the utility area and fix it, but this year we’re actually having to uncover what we’re working on,” she said.
Flathead National Forest officials are advising forest users to be cautious on trails and roads. Warming temperatures and snowmelt are contributing to saturated soils and rising water levels. Deep snow, downed trees, blocked roads and trails, muddy conditions and swiftly moving water are all concerns.
“We encourage all forest users to contact a local Forest Service office to obtain current information about road and trail conditions, access, and ideas for alternate travel routes,” Flathead National Forest spokesperson Denise Germann said.
“Recreationists on or near a river, stream or lake should use extreme caution as water levels may fluctuate quickly,” she added.
Hay Creek Road south of Polebridge was temporary closed due to a road slump as of May 12. Spotted Bear River Road is expected to be closed over the weekend due to a mudslide and it’s unclear when it will open.
Germann said eastside Hungry Horse Reservoir Road is open to Hoke Creek and anticipates the entire eastside road to be open by Sunday. Germann encourages people to contact a local Forest Service office if they see road slumping or other conditions.
“We will continue to monitor across the forest, and we anticipate additional damage and challenges as the snowpack melts,” she said.
John Fraley of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said his agency is keeping a close eye on water levels. He said fishing accesses could get flooded.
“We’ll just have to see how it develops,” Fraley said. “We’ll keep everybody informed.”
During the National Weather Service briefing on May 13, Whitmore said expected precipitation over the weekend would bring both blessings and concerns for water levels. While adding to river flows, the precipitation also means cooler weather, which should slow snowmelt. Cooler temperatures are expected to persist into next week.
“This is just the first peak in the runoff,” Whitmore said. “I think we’re only going to see minor flooding in main stem rivers.”
The Yaak River near Troy is in the flood warning stage. Other rivers in the region are under flood watch. Whitmore said the Flathead River could reach action stage next week.
Whitmore was offering short-term forecasts, but the long-term repercussions of lingering snow could be more concerning once the weather warms.
“This is not the end of flooding,” Whitmore said. “This is just the beginning.”
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