Blog:  Feeling the Heat in Montana

Climate change and life in Montana through the eyes of a UM student

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View from the Top: Winter 2012

My parents introduced me to skiing when I was in pre-school, but we didn’t make it up to the mountain much as I grew older: I think I only went skiing twice in high school. Every trip we took up to Red Lodge Mountain was an adventure for me though. I remember my parents nervously following as I zipped down the mountain – or maybe it was just the bunny hill - but that’s how I remember it.  I’m a sophomore in college now, and I’ve spent the last two winters on the slopes of Montana renewing my relationship with a set of skis and the snow-covered mountains for which our state is named.

One weekend in March of this year, I found myself in skis at the top of Snowbowl. It was magnificent, with the sky above me a periwinkle-streaked grey and the valley in the distance, and the pines and Douglas firs bracing themselves against the weight of the snow. I could feel the cold beginning to pierce through my parka, stealing bits of my warmth. The cold was magnified by the stillness of the lift: the numbness of toes, the crispness of icy wind on pink cheeks, and the clarity of vision from the stark, winter air. It all went away as soon as I let that mysterious force known as gravity pull me down the mountain.  Bending my hips as my skis pressed against the billions of snowflakes that had been accumulating all winter, and all I can think is “I think I’m in love.”

A lot of people here in Montana understand this feeling. Every time I make it to the mountain I’ll find myself grinning as zip down the slopes or watch from the lift as little tykes ski down ; parents following, or attached by a leash, or even skiing backwards in front of them on the bunny-hill. I want that someday, and I want that for my children and grandchildren, and their children.

But I’m starting to wonder if that will be possible. Climate change is having real impacts on Montana, even when it comes to the snow on our mountains. But what does that mean for snow sports across the state? Or for snow in general? When I look to future generations of Montanans and even the latter half of my life, what will it look like?

The impacts of climate change include less snow, warmer temperatures, and a shorter winter season overall. Those changes have a lot of implications for Montana; one of them might be less time on the slopes. So what can we do and what are ski resorts across Montana doing?  Like most Montanans, I want a full winter season of snow tipped peaks for the rest of my life, and for the lives of my children and grandchildren, don’t you?

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Cattle, Crops, and Climate Change: Montana’s Agricultural Industry

It looked as if puffs of cotton candy were floating across the sky as I sat on the back porch of my Aunt and Uncle’s ranch house, watching the pink clouds bounce around the bright blue sky. It was a sticky July evening, and I was enjoying an extended weekend at their ranch just outside Lewistown. That white ranch house, surrounded by fields, with their red pick-up truck parked on the gravel driveway out front, was definitely picturesque. I love being there; I have ever since I was a child. The familiar scents of wheat and manure found my nose as the breeze picked up.

Things aren’t quite as romantic as they seemed that day though. Farming and ranching have always involved long days filled with hard work for Montanans, who are facing more than just the frenzy of calving season or the demanding work of harvest these days as Montana’s climate begins to change. Melting glaciers in Glacier National Park, the loss of wildlife habitat, and a spike in wildfires are visible, well-documented impacts of climate change in our state. However, Montana’s largest industry—agriculture—is beginning to feel the effects of climate change as farmers and ranchers across our state start to notice serious environmental shifts taking place.

Montana’agricultural industry employs over 31,000 people and accounts for up to 30 percent of all economic activity in the state. About 64 percent of our state’s roughly 93 million acres is farm and ranch land. Around 28,000 farms and ranches can be found in Montana and at any given time about 2.5 million cattle are out roaming and grazing our beautiful state. Total annual sales receipts for Montana agricultural products are well over $2 billion in recent years, divided fairly evenly between livestock and a full range of field crops. The major crops in our state are wheat, barley, and hay.

The adverse effects of climate change are coming to the forefront for many farmers and ranchers across the state. I live in Missoula, which sit comfortably tucked in a valley at the base of the Crown of the Continent area. Nearby ranchers in Western Montana who own land in the Southwestern Crown of the Continent have already seen changes in the environment and on their land over the past few decades. The challenges our state and the nation are facing from impacts of climate change can feel overwhelming, but the good news is that people across the state are taking an active role to do their part to develop and test solutions on the ground.

This summer, I spent time in the Southwestern Crown of the Continent between the Swan Valley and Ovando on a field course with the University of Montana Climate Change Studies Program.  During our week 10 days in the area, we spoke with a wide variety of people about the issue – many of whom were working with The Blackfoot Challenge. They work with local communities to manage an immense amount of conservation and restoration projects across the valley, from conservation easements and a hired range rider to stream restoration and drought response plans. These actions are in response to impacts of climate change such as earlier runoff, reduced summer stream flow, increased wildfires, and habitat loss. These issues are expected to worsen in coming years.

The management for multiple factors as well as community-wide collaboration serves as an important lesson that people across Montana as well as people outside our state should keep in mind. While there is far more that can be done to adapt and mitigate climate change and its impacts, Montanans should be proud to live in a state where there are people taking such an active role on the issue. In talking to several ranchers involved with the projects, they believe that they had a duty to initiate this and that they couldn’t just expect the government to do it for them. They are the ones with generations’ worth of knowledge about the land as whole, even more specifically the soil, and they want to use it.

Sitting on the porch of that white ranch house made it easy to overlook the land as the sweeping cotton candy sky caught my eye. But the land is what matters when it really comes down to it, especially when it comes to climate change in Montana. Our state is filled with smart and effective people working to address the many impacts of climate change we now face. In the agricultural community, managing soils carefully in a warmer and drier climate is of major importance, particularly on our farm and ranchlands. There is always more to be done and an ongoing need for better and more innovative solutions, but it’s comforting to know that so many of Montana’s citizens are out there managing and caring for the things we value most in our state.

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Climate Change and Montana's Growing Noxious Weed Problem

“Take it out to a 66!” yelled Sarah to the other students stretched out along the measuring tapes among the beds of windswept grass and weeds on the Ridge Trail. We were creating transects across vegetation plots to check the effectiveness of spraying and weeding carried out in the area.

Last year, I worked as a field instructor for the Youth Forest Monitoring Program in Helena, Montana. I was in charge of seven high school students from the area as we traveled around the Helena National Forest and monitored soil, weeds, and sometimes streams.

Weeds have always seemed like unavoidable part of life in the natural world. They were always something we pulled out of the garden as we planted and picked throughout the growing season, and they were part of the scenery along the road to my family's house in Montana growing up, so I’m used to seeing them around. But between my work last summer and my studies in climate change and resource conservation, I have begun to realize what a huge issue they are and how stubborn they can be when it comes to the thorny issue of getting rid of them.

There are a wide range of noxious weeds in Montana, and they sure are hard to get rid of. Spraying and weeding seem like some of the only solutions, and in the face of climate change the situation it seems like it can only get worse. Finding all the weeds to spray and pull out seems like an even greater challenge:  all it takes is a few left behind to bud and spread their seeds, and we’re back to square one.

It turns out that there may be a solution to this challenge, and it comes in the shape of our furry border collie from Bozeman and a few other pups. Dogs are being used on Mt. Sentinel to help sniff out Dyer’s woad so that it can be eradicated from the mountain. These dogs can sniff out the weed at any stage of its growth! It is a creative solution to an ever-growing problem. When I think of my dog, a blond labradoodle named Emma, what usually comes to mind is her hiding my shoes, shedding all over the place, and always greeting me with a wagging tail and lick. It’s pretty cool to think that beyond training them to be seeing-eye and rescue dogs, man’s best friend can also be an expert weed finder. Who knew?

With the possibility of climate change causing greater growth and spread of noxious weeds, creative and adaptive solutions need to be found to help preserve the species and landscape of our state. I’d have to say that using dogs to help sniff out weeds that need to be eradicated is definitely one of them. Good dogs!

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