Clobbered by Snow, Beleaguered Blackfeet Communities Begin to Gain Ground

Some areas are recording more than 70 inches of snow in February, closing schools for most of the month

By Tristan Scott

Blackfoot language instructor Jesse DesRosier only taught his students five days last month as a dramatic blizzard roiled the reservation he lives on, with relentless wind canceling classes and driving snow into every corner of the far-flung communities flanking his home in Browning.

Emergency coordinators finally caught a break late this week and managed to clear out some of the snow accumulation, which totals six feet in some areas, carving a narrow two-lane path through highway arteries that have been intermittently closed for weeks, cutting off supplies to the reservation and making travel virtually impossible.

The brutal weather prompted the Blackfeet Nation to declare a state of emergency in early January, while Gov. Steve Bullock followed up with a declaration of his own on Feb. 27, sending a semi-load of food and two shipments of firewood to the beleaguered communities Browning, Heart Butte, East Glacier, Babb, and St. Mary.

But class remained canceled, so DesRosier, who teaches the traditional Blackfoot language at the Cuts Wood School in Browning, decided to take advantage of the highway openings and hit the road to cheer on the Heart Butte boys basketball team as the squad headed to the state tournament.

Unfortunately, the Warriors were knocked out of the tournament, but their previously undefeated season was even more exceptional due to the added challenge of spending weeks on the road as daunting weather conditions prevented them from returning home. The team lived out of hotels as they hit the tournament circuit, unable to return home due to road closures and the fear that if they did make it, they would be stranded.

Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Harry Barnes said snow and wind had hammered the reservation for 10 days straight, while an incident command post has helped organize search and rescue teams and distribute food, blankets and firewood to those who can’t leave their homes.

Robert DesRosier, the incident team commander, said Wednesday and Thursday brought some reprieve from the snow as well as warmer temperatures, allowing plows and rotors to hew out lanes in the dense snowpack.

DesRosier explained that typically following a significant snow event a thin layer of ice develops on the snow, preventing it from blowing around on the notoriously wind-stricken region. But because of the extreme cold temperatures of the recent weeks, the communities have been enveloped in a spindrift.

The roads refill with snow almost as soon as they are plowed, he said, while the wind creates whiteout conditions.

As of March 2, all roads were open with the exception of Highway 89 heading north to St. Mary. It is closed after mile post 15.5.

“We’re just hoping we can moderate a little bit and get a handle on what is going on,” DesRosier said, adding that emergency coordinators are transporting snow to a site east of Browning to mitigate the potential consequence of severe flooding.

Easing the struggle have been the donations pouring in from throughout Northwest Montana, including the Flathead Valley.

Volunteers with the Montana Conservation Corps have been helping to shovel snow and unload firewood, a truckload of which Rocky Mountain Outfitter owners Don and Colleen Scharfe helped deliver.

In the Flathead, donations can be made to the Flathead Valley Community College’s administrative office, the Epworth United Methodist Church in Kalispell, or the United Methodist Church in Columbia Falls.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes contributed $5,000 for food and water.

“We hope this helps ease their difficulties,” CSKT Chairman Ronald Trahan said. “Everyone on Council agreed this was the right thing to do.”

DesRosier praised the work of plow drivers and machine operators who have been performing the relentless task of snow removal for weeks on end.

“These individuals have been working overtime, barely seeing their families throughout this disaster. They continue every day to try and keep the roads open. We ask that our community be patient and stay off the roads so that they can do their work in case of any emergency that may arise,” he said.