Release the Rivers

The snowpack numbers in Montana are amazing

By Rob Breeding

Finally, thankfully, the grip of winter is relaxing. Temperatures across Montana have climbed above freezing. It’s no heat wave mind you, as we’re only talking high 30s to low 40s. But that’s enough to get the atoms in those H2O molecules buzzing enough to turn all that snow covering our state into water.

The numbers are amazing. Snowpack in the Upper Yellowstone watershed was 164 percent of average in early March. That’s the best trout-stream-in-reserve number for any watershed in Montana, but they are all above average. The Flathead sits at 141 percent, and when you combine that with 156 percent snowpack in the upper Clarks Fork drainage you might smartly conclude now is the time to invest in sandbag futures.

Abundant snowpack is mostly good news, unless you’re living on the Blackeet Nation where snow has accumulated in drifts deep enough to bury homes. Food had to be trucked in, and the work clearing paths along reservation highways has been heroic.

Some schools remained closed for much of February. It got so bad the Heart Butte boys basketball team stayed away from home out of fear if they returned, they wouldn’t get out again until spring. Spring, by the way, is forecast to hit Heart Butte sometime in mid-August based on current conditions.

For the rest of us, all this weather has meant extra snow shoveling, or possibly, it has been enough to get some to finally pull the trigger on a new snow blower. Assuming we have an average spring and early summer, river users — along with commissioned snow blower salespersons — will be the primary beneficiaries of all this white stuff.

Average is key. We are now entering into the three-month period that in most years provides the bulk of Montana’s precipitation. If things are average, Bonecrusher Rapid on the Middle Fork should be plenty fun all through summer. And if rapids have lots of water, so will trout. Hoot owl restrictions, which shut down fishing at noon when water temperatures get too warm, are unlikely if the snowpack holds up.

If part of your Montana income portfolio includes “trout fishing guide” this is good news. When I guided in West Glacier, walk-in traffic accounted for a fair share of business during high-water years. There’s a buzz about fly fishing when water conditions are good. In those low-water years, however, August can be pretty bleak.

For firefighters it’s another matter. I’m thankful for all the life-risking work they put in on our behalf in 2017, and I’m happy a share of my tax dollars went to paying them lots of overtime.

In 2018, I hope things will be different. Either firefighters will be out of work and have to report to fall college classes on time, or if they are working, it’s in a state far, far away.

Waterfowl in eastern Montana may be victims of all this snow. Recent mild winters apparently convinced many waterfowl to pass on the whole winter migration thing. When there’s lots of bare farm ground that worked out just fine for ducks and geese. They kept their crops full foraging for spilled grain and leftover sugar beat tops. But there’s been heavy snow cover around Billings since mid-December, and when it did warm up a bit in January, it only melted enough snow so that it could refreeze into an impenetrable crust.

Hunters reported underweight waterfowl when the season was still open. Considering the problems overabundant Canada geese cause, a little natural culling of the flocks might not be the worst outcome.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com, which covers outdoor news in Montana.

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