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Could Climate Change Solutions Also Help Drought Conditions?

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 12 percent of the state is experiencing the highest stage of drought. (droughtmonitor.unl.edu)
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 12 percent of the state is experiencing the highest stage of drought. (droughtmonitor.unl.edu)
July 31, 2017

CIRCLE, Mont. -- Montana is suffering from wildfires and possibly the worst drought in 30 years, bringing lots of pain to farmers and ranchers.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 12 percent of the state is experiencing "exceptional drought," the highest level measured. The northeastern part of the state has been hardest hit by drought conditions.

Brant Quick, a farmer and rancher near Circle and member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, said people in the area are turning to costly solutions such as trucking in hay.

"Of course, that trickles down to the businesses in town and everybody feels the effects of it,” Quick said.

Wildfires are exacerbating the problem. The Lodgepole Complex of fires in eastern Montana's Garfield County is the largest in the nation, and has burned more than 400 square miles.

Montanans such as Mark Fix, a rancher and irrigator near Miles City and also a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, say climate change is making things worse. A study by Climate Central found Montana has seen a greater increase in large fires than any other state in the last 45 years.

According to States at Risk, a project that assesses the effect of climate change on each state, Montana faces one of the highest threats from drought over the next three decades. Fix said he's noticed a shift in weather patterns.

"It sure seems like climate change is playing a big part, because it just doesn't seem like these are the normal weather patterns and stuff,” Fix said. "It just seems like everything's kind of twisted around and we're getting some strange weather occurrences. "

Quick is skeptical about how much humans are contributing to climate change. But he said even if humans aren't the leading cause, we shouldn't be making the effects worse. That's why he's become an advocate of using cover crops to sequester carbon in the soil.

Quick said the method has a number of benefits, including capturing carbon before it enters the atmosphere, decreasing the ground temperature during situations such as the current drought, and more.

"It also lowers your need for inputs of artificial fertilizers and also will help break up insects and other pest cycles and that type of thing,” he said. "It just puts everything back in balance."

Quick said so far, this has been the driest summer for the area since record-keeping began in 1907.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT