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Drought tightens its grip on ranchers, businesses

Montana State Roundup

July 1, 2004

Drought tightens its grip on ranchers, businesses

Farmers, business owners, foresters and homeowners are bracing for a long, dry summer as the state endures its sixth straight year of drought. A May report by the Governor's Drought Advisory Committee warned that crop yields this season are likely to disappoint once again, forcing many farmers and ranchers into bankruptcy and threatening the livelihoods of Main Street businesses that depend on their spending.

The report said that drought will probably continue across much of the state, robbing farmers of water badly needed for crops and grazing, and forcing city governments to drastically curtail their water use. Mountain snow-pack ranges from well below average to about 80 percent of average across the state, according to the report. While a few rivers and streams are flowing normally for this time of year, most watercourses are low, and groundwater levels continue to drop.

With no relief in sight, five years of deepening drought have forced Montana ranchers and growers to haul water to pastures, dig new wells, plant drought-resistant crops and sell livestock. The state has lost about 50,000 head of cattle annually since 2000, according to the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service.

Forests, the lifeblood of the state's wood products and tourism industries, are also expected to suffer this summer, and not just from wildfires. In the spring the U.S. Forest Service forecast an assault by tree-killing beetles on lodgepole, Douglas fir, whitebark pine, Engelmann spruce and other trees weakened by drought. Last year bark beetles laid waste to 500,000 acres of Montana forests.

Ominously, the Drought Committee report suggests that the drought may not be a short-term phenomenon, but part of a long-term drying cycle. Some climatologists theorize that the American West's "wet" phase—a period that may span all of recorded history in the region—has now come to an end.

Phil Davies