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The Future of Drought in Montana

After a three-year process, Montana releases a long-awaited update to its Drought Management Plan. Will its recommendations save the Treasure State?

Migratory grasshoppers left this once-three-foot-tall wheatfield in Malta, Montana, barren in 2021. Drought in the Treasure State is expected to worsen along with other western states, and the DNRC recently released an updated version of Montana's Drought Management Plan, a project three years in the making. Photo by Lance Cheung/USDA Media
Migratory grasshoppers left this once-three-foot-tall wheatfield in Malta, Montana, barren in 2021. Drought in the Treasure State is expected to worsen along with other western states, and the DNRC recently released an updated version of Montana's Drought Management Plan, a project three years in the making. Photo by Lance Cheung/USDA Media
by Julia Barton

It doesn’t take an expert to notice the difference in snowpack between this year and last in Greater Yellowstone—the contrast is night and day. In January 2023, Montana’s Madison, Gallatin and Upper Yellowstone basins each reported a snow water equivalent at least 10 percent above average, while in December, the same areas held just 52-60 percent of their typical SWE, per data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

What these numbers point to is drought, a condition made up of a number of indicators, that has been a part of Montana’s landscape for centuries. That’s according to the state's recently released updated Drought Management Plan.

Penned by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the plan took three years to put together and considers the voices of various stakeholders, including hundreds of Montanans and a collection of state and tribal agencies. The planning process began in 2020 following an appropriation from the 2019 Montana Legislature and a Drought Contingency Planning Grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
While drought is considered common in Montana, severity levels can vary greatly from year to year, and the indicators that factor into drought classification are many. At left: Montana's drought classification on Dec. 5, 2023. At right: Montana's drought classification on Dec. 7, 2021. Maps courtesy U.S. Drought Monitor
While drought is considered common in Montana, severity levels can vary greatly from year to year, and the indicators that factor into drought classification are many. At left: Montana's drought classification on Dec. 5, 2023. At right: Montana's drought classification on Dec. 7, 2021. Maps courtesy U.S. Drought Monitor
A few notable changes have been made since the previous plan was enacted in 1995, since it predated the U.S. Drought Monitor, a tool developed in 1999 that offers a standardized drought assessment weekly across the country. Additionally, overall monitoring equipment has improved and precipitation has decreased.

The plan cites the 2021 Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment, which documented a decline in snowfall in the region since the 1950s.

“In Montana, drought is a recurring event that can last for multiple years, sometimes, even decades,” the new plan reads. “Future drought is projected to be more severe and longer lasting due to warmer temperatures caused by long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns.”

The plan outlines 36 recommendations impacting water storage, water policy, funding, monitoring, community governance, and agency coordination. The recommendations emphasize both responses to and preparedness for drought.

Drought impacts extend beyond agriculture and recreation, and have widespread effects on landscapes and livelihood. Stay tuned to Mountain Journal for more in-depth reporting about how this season’s low precipitation is impacting Greater Yellowstone and its wildlife.

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.


Julia Barton
About Julia Barton

Julia Barton is a freelance journalist and communications specialist based out of Bozeman. A Montana native, she earned a journalism degree from the University of Southern California and reports on the environment, outdoor recreation and the arts.
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