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Rains in western Montana have kept conditions greener than in the east, including in the area north of Three Forks, Mont. Photo taken June 29, 2017. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

Drought spreads west in Montana

GLENDIVE, Mont. — It's not unusual for it to feel like eastern Montana and western Montana are two different states, with the plains in the east and the mountains to the west. This year's drought has settled along similar lines, with the eastern prairies brown and the western areas maintaining closer to normal soil moisture.

Kelsey Jensco, state climatologist, says the Continental Divide splits the state into a maritime climate in western Montana, similar to the Pacific Northwest, and a semi-arid continental climate in the east.

"In eastern Montana this spring, we saw warmer temperatures, a significant reduction in precipitation and persistent winds," he says. "In Glasgow, the National Weather Service reported the driest April, May and June since 1918."

In those three months, only 1.24 inches of rain fell in Glasgow.

In the U.S. Drought Monitor released June 6, the percentage of Montana in extreme drought nearly doubled, from 6.77 percent to 12.89 percent. Another 22.04 percent is in severe drought, 8.01 percent is in moderate drought and 4.78 percent is abnormally dry.

North Dakota's area in extreme drought increased slightly, from 25.06 percent to 29.29 percent. Another 17.7 percent is in severe drought, 19.78 percent is in moderate drought and 26.91 percent is abnormally dry. The area in the state that is not considered to have any drought conditions increased from .02 percent a week earlier to 6.32 percent, all in the northeast.

Extreme drought increased in South Dakota from 2.09 percent to 4.3, all toward the north. Another 29.84 percent is in severe drought, 23.59 percent is in moderate drought and 32.95 percent is abnormally dry.

The agricultural impacts from the drought in eastern Montana have been severe. Jensco says less than 23 percent of emerged wheat has been listed as good to excellent, cattle are being sold, spring grains are being lost and pulse crops are starting to suffer, and winter wheat is being cut for hay instead of harvested. Many counties have banned burning, and the Fort Peck Indian Tribe instituted a disaster declaration for the reservation.

Jensco says crops and feed supplies already are beyond salvage in eastern Montana.

"Hopefully we receive late summer and fall precipitation that recharges soil moisture going into the next season," he says.

He says the Climate Prediction Center's three-month outlook suggests temperatures will be above normal, and there is a higher probability of above-average precipitation. But that could mean .001 inch higher than normal or 1 inch higher than normal, he says.

"It would take more than the latter to make up eastern Montana's deficit," he explains.

While all of Montana's dry and drought conditions are radiating out of the eastern side of the state, Jensco says the drought is beginning to spread west.

"Western Montana was looking good this spring. We had normal to above-normal precipitation and normal to cooler-than-normal temperatures," he says. "That bought us some time in response to the recent heat. These conditions are changing."

Warmer-than-average conditions and below-normal precipitation, combined with wind, have led to soil drying out.

"We need to keep a close eye on conditions in the following weeks for central to western Montana," Jensco says.

Crop and livestock conditions will need to be watched, but another big concern in western Montana is fire danger.

"The way things are going, it's possible that we will start to see some smoke in central to western Montana," Jensco says. He says dry conditions also could lead to a decline in streamflow, which could contribute to water calls and fishing restrictions.