by Ellen Thompson
Havre Daily News
An unusually mild winter leaves Hi-Line residents hoping that all the adages about spring rains, and sometimes snows, are true.
Timely rains last year seemed to promise the end of a nearly eight-year drought, and at least produced a healthy crop of wheat, but winter has answered back.
"We're mighty dry on the surface," said Gregg Carlson, superintendent at the Northern Agricultural Research Center at Fort Assinniboine south of Havre. Last month, the area received 0.1 of an inch of precipitation, compared with an average of 0.32, he added.
Scientists held a conference this week at Montana State University-Bozeman about the West's strange weather patterns that have dried out Montana - in places at Dust Bowl levels - and poured record amounts of rain onto Las Vegas and Southern California.
The snowpack is normally the savings account for spring moisture in Montana, Carlson said, but from this point, it would take three times the normal precipitation to bring snowpack and stream flows to normal levels.
He tells people: "Think wet snow."
In the short term, a mild winter has meant good business for construction companies and the local golf course.
Dave Clausen said the family's construction business has done well and is working ahead of schedule on bigger outdoor projects, such as the Applied Technology Center at Montana State University-Northern, a new Border Patrol station in Malta and a new office for Sagebrush Cellular.
The weather, Clausen said, had improved his mood as well, but continuously sunny skies have him brooding.
"It makes me nervous what it might do for the overall economy," he said. "It's been good for us the last few months, but I'm afraid we might be paying for it come spring."
Clausen said he worries for the farmers.
Two months ago, the outlook for winter wheat was good, and is still steady, but depends on spring rain.
Hill County Extension agent Joe Broesder said winter wheat comes out of dormancy when ground temperatures reach 40 to 45 degrees.
Farmers are starting to see those ground temperatures, and new wheat growth.
During most winters, snow cover protects the winter crop, Carlson said. In this dry, warm winter, wind and desiccation have damaged some wheat, he said. As long as temperatures do not drop below zero, though, the wheat should not need the protection.
"May and June moisture makes our crop," Broesder said. The spring moisture helps the wheat continue root development. The crop is harvested in August.
Dick Pollington, who farms near Kremlin, is staying positive. "It looks pretty good. We have hopes of it making it through the winter OK," he said.
The second annual Big Money Ice Fishing Derby had been scheduled for Feb. 12-13, but was canceled due to safety concerns over thinning ice.
Derby organizer Chuck Wimmer said he had hoped to raise between $3,000 and $4,000 for the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce Agribusiness Committee. The money would have gone toward scholarships for students studying agriculture at Northern and for this year's Ag Appreciation banquet.
The committee has not organized an alternate fund-raiser yet, he said.
The Snow Dance Ski Association has lost money this season. The Bear Paw Ski Bowl, which the nonprofit organization operates for Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, didn't open this winter, but has had utility and maintenance bills.
Association president Claire Stoner said the group will probably need to hold a fund-raiser in the summer, which they have not done for several years. They plan to shut off power to the ski hill next week.
Association members did need the rest, she said. Before winter started, a few volunteers had decided to take a break this year.
"It's been almost a relief to not have the burden that goes along with it," she said. "Hopefully everybody will be more excited about having the hill open" next year.
The winter has affected the area wildlife as well, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Al Rosgaard said.
Deer and elk are fanning out and grazing at higher elevations in the Bear Paws than normal, he said. The weather conditions have been a lot easier on them, but they too will need a green spring.
Dry spring conditions lead to a poor survival rate for fawns and low fawn production in the following year, he said.
Springtime migrations are early as well.
"I've been seeing geese return here in the last week or two, and it might be just a little early," Rosgaard said.
The gophers are out early as well. Carlson said the males are often out in early March, but custodial supervisor at Northern, John Brese, is used to a later appearance of gophers on campus.
"I think there's both varieties," he said. "That's quite a bit earlier than usual."
John Gardipee, assistant superintendent of the Rocky Boy fire crew, is worried about the dry weather and an early fire season. His department will not give out controlled-burn fire permits, he said.
Since Jan. 28, the crew has fought 23 fires on 321 acres. Gardipee said arson is the leading cause.