Running cows in the shadow of Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front isn’t for the faint of heart. Droughts, floods, winds so strong they’ll knock you off your horse, erratic cattle prices, and a gang of predators eager to make a meal out of any calf that crosses their path: all that is a normal part of ranching on the Rocky Mountain Front.
Pat ‘Judge’ Hall has lived there for 64 years. His ranch, Blacktail Angus, stands just north of Birch Creek on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Four generations of Halls have made their living running cows on the Rocky Mountain Front, but none of them ever saw a September storm quite like the one that blew in last Friday.
“Where I live, we got close to four foot of snow on the level,” Hall said. “The snow banks are 10- to 12-feet deep. There’s no way I can get out of here with tractors or anything like that. It’s flat tough.”
Strong winds and heavy snow hit the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains late Friday evening. The worst of it centered on a narrow expanse stretching from the Canadian border south to Augusta. By Monday afternoon the Blackfeet Indian Reservation’s largest community, Browning, had 48 inches of snow piled up, breaking a record for September storms set in 1908.
Once the snow stopped and the winds died down, Blackfeet officials had a chance to evaluate the situation. What they found was disheartening.
“We have a lot of displaced livestock and many fences covered by snow,” said Terry Tatsey of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. “Many parts of Blackfeet Country were heavily affected by the snow accumulation. Many ranchers are searching for their cattle as the snow recedes. We have many ranchers who will need hay.”
Just a few miles east, the conditions were far more tolerable. The city of Cut Bank, just 33 miles away, received less than a third of Browning’s total snow accumulation.
“My brother lives west of Cut Bank about 10- or 12-miles,” Hall said. “He called me on Saturday to see how things were over here. That’s when we were still piling up. He said, ‘We’ve got about six inches’.
Farmers and ranchers across northcentral Montana had ample warning that a major winter storm was was about to hit, but few fully appreciated its impending severity. Adding to their troubles was widespread delays getting winter feed. A cool, wet summer slowed maturation of the area’s hay crop. Ranchers used to having their stack yards filled before Labor Day stared nervously as the empty yards filled with snow.
“We knew the storm was coming, but there was no way I could have got up there within a day and got my cattle moved down,” Hall said of his herd grazing on the flanks of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. “It really wouldn’t have done much good for me anyway, because I wouldn’t have been able to feed them.”
“Normally by the end of August I’ve got all my hay bought and moved in,” he explained, “but the hay producer I buy mine from, he didn’t get his second crop until right about the middle of September. About the time I got ready to move that, this storm hit. I do have some feed on hand, but nothing compared to what I’d have in a normal year. Everybody else is pretty much in the same situation here.”
As noted before, ranchers by nature are a pretty hardy lot. It’s unlikely that any family stalwart enough to survive 80-plus years on the Front would be defeated by a single storm. Much the same can be said for their livestock.
“They’re pretty hardy animals, and they’re not as dumb as people think they are,” Hall said of his cattle. “They’re going find a place where there’s good shelter to keep out of the wind.”
No matter how resilient they are, Montana ranchers on the Rocky Mountain Front can’t help but worry that some percentage of their herds may have succumbed to the snow and cold; and the impact it may have on calf weights. October is when the largest percentage of cow/calf operations sell the bulk of their animals.
A quarter horse ponders leaving its stall on the Hall Ranch near Heart Butte
“I’m hoping that within a week or so, if it warms up, it will be thawed up enough to where we can maybe start looking for them,” Hall said of his cattle herd. “I’ve supposedly got a bunch of cattle up there, but I’m thinking with this snow, they’re probably making their way down. They might be half way to Dupuyer by now.”
The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council has offered the following information to ranchers concerned about livestock losses due to the past week’s storm.
“Ranchers need to remember if they have livestock losses, to document those losses through photos that are timestamped. People and organizations interested in donating hay can contact the MSU Extension office for the Tribe, Verna Billedeaux or the Tribe’s ARMP department, Will Seeley. You can call (406) 338-7521 ext 2370. We will make information available as it becomes available.”
–Reprinted with permission from the Great Falls Tribune
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