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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

2017 ends as the 10th driest year in Glendive's history

By Jason Stuart

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

It’s official, as 2017 will go down as one of the 10 driest years in Glendive’s recorded history, and with the ground virtually sapped of all moisture, area agricultural producers may have some tough choices to make this coming season if rain fails to arrive in sufficient amounts this spring.

The National Weather Service recently released the final precipitation totals from locations around Eastern Montana and the results are ugly. Glendive received just 9.54 inches of precipitation for 2017, nearly four full inches below the annual average of 13.41 inches, ranking as the tenth driest year in Glendive’s history.

As bad as that was, at least it was better than most of the other cities and towns across the region, many of which ended up with one of their top five all time driest years, with some setting new records for dryness. For example, Circle recorded the driest year in its recorded history, with just 6.98 inches of precipitation, while Glasgow, home of the weather service’s reporting station for the region, got just 6.64 inches, also setting a new all-time record.

Though still gripped by drought, weather service meteorologist Brandon Bigelbach said Glendive was just a little bit more fortunate than most of its neighbors in terms of rainfall for 2017.

“I would have to say in some ways, it’s probably more of a dumb luck thing than anything else,” Bigelbach said of Glendive’s slightly higher precipitation totals, further explaining that while Glendive’s location in the Yellowstone River valley can affect temperatures and wind in relation to the surrounding area, it has little bearing on precipitation amounts.

Bigelbach added that Glendive was fortunate in being a little farther south and closer to North Dakota — which though still dry, got more rain than Montana — which he said probably helped push Glendive’s precipitation totals a little higher than other communities in the region.

“Being a little bit further to the east and little bit more to the south put you a little bit closer to the storm tracks,” he said. “The further east you got, the more on the edge of (the drought conditions) you were.”

While the Glendive area may have been a little bit more fortunate than the rest of the region, the outlying agricultural lands are still in the grips of a severe drought which will take heavy spring rains to put a dent in, according to Dawson County MSU Extension agent Bruce Smith, who said that the recent snowfall isn’t going to do a whole lot to help producers come spring planting season.

“What moisture we get this time of year doesn’t matter much,” Smith said. “You could get three feet of snow and maybe get three inches of rain out of the deal and we need a lot more than that. It doesn’t help a whole lot. The irrigators should be OK, it sounds like there’s plenty of snowpack, it’s the dryland guys who are going to be hurting.”

Smith added that knowing that, local dryland farmers should be thinking long and hard about what they choose to plant this spring.

“There’s some hard decisions that have to be made as to what to plant and when to plant it,” he said. “You’re taking your dice and you’re rolling them and hoping the moisture’s going to be there for the seeds.”

Smith said that with as dry as 2017 was, there is a lot of anxiety amongst the area’s agricultural producers about what this year will bring.

“There was a lot of anxiety when the year ended. Everybody’s anxious, but there’s nothing they can do about it, so they can make themselves sick worrying about it or they can think this is the country we live in and hopefully it will rain,” he said. “I’m not sure I know anybody who’s looking forward to this spring, but it’s going to come whether we want it to or not.”

Smith said that some area cattle producers began taking steps to thin out their herds as 2017 wound down in response to the dry conditions.

“A lot of guys took a real critical look at their cattle herd, and hopefully they liquidated those (cattle) that weren’t going to help them pay the bills,” he said.

For dryland farmers, Smith said one thing they may want to consider this spring is planting forage crops like hay barley, millet or sorghum rather than cereal grains. He said that last season, with so much of the grain going bad in the field due to the drought and heat, it would have in many cases been more profitable for farmers to have planted forage crops, especially since grain prices remain low and the drought also created a critical hay shortage in the region. He added that another advantage of forage crops is they can be planted much later than grains.

“Grain prices aren’t that great anyway, so maybe (farmers will) take a wait and see approach,” Smith said. “And forage crops can be planted right up to the first of July and we should know what kind of rain we’ll have by then.”

As for what factors may have caused the 2017 drought, Bigelbach said there’s no easy culprit to point to, noting that the southern Pacific is in between an El Nino and La Nina cycle, so those climate phenomenoms do not appear to have contributed to the dryness and heat. 

“I think it’s just more of that constant ridge of high pressure which sat over the West and just did not move,” Bigelbach said. “It was almost an impenetrable wall. I think that, more than anything else, caused that dry spell.”

Smith added that looking at the region’s climate data for the last 50 years, a clear, however slight warming trend is evident.

“The overall (temperature) trend has been upward, not by much, but a little bit,” he said. “I hate to use the word ‘climate change,’ but I think most people can agree the world is getting a little warmer, you just can argue about what’s causing that, I guess.”

Reach Jason Stuart at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.

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