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How drought conditions are affecting one Montana lake

Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge
Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge
Posted at 10:33 AM, May 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-17 12:40:22-04

NEAR MALTA - It doesn’t take much to see that much of Montana is in a drought.

When it comes to bodies of water, it is scarce in many areas and Lake Bowdoin near Malta is just one example. It’s not a deep lake with only several feet in its deepest spots normally, but locals can barely tell it’s a lake even after a full day of rain last week.

“It’s been a little bit here and there. But over an inch, I don’t even remember when we got that much rain,” refuge manager Aaron Griffith said. “It’s a shock for most visitors when they see the lake mostly dry. As somebody that likes ducks, sometimes it’s hard to see a dry lake. But the truth is the wildlife are going to be okay. The prairies have been going through wet and dry cycles for as long as they’ve been around. Really it just makes me happy for our partners knowing how it impacts them.”

Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge
Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge

Griffith works with Jessica Larson, one of the refuge’s biologists. She has lived all over the country and says Bowdoin has some of the driest conditions she’s ever seen.

“I moved here in the flood of 2011 and when I moved here I was told that was the most water they’ve ever seen on the refuge. Eleven years later, this is the least amount of water we’ve ever seen on the refuge,” Larson said.

The overall lack of rain is worrisome for many people. Despite that, some ecosystems like Bowdoin need drought cycles. “It is good to have drought. Bowdoin needs them to expose the mudflats,” Larson said.

May 12 was a significant day for the area, as they got most the most rain they’ve gotten in months. The weather station in Malta has reported 9.34" of rain from May 12 of 2021 to May 12 of this year.

Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge

This year started with very little moisture, a combined 0.09" of rain in January and February. Last week’s moisture is not the final saving grace, but it served as a crucial gift for the land. The National Weather Service says things look good in the short term, but spring rains will be key moving into the summer months for the entire state.

“This is about as bad as it gets really for eastern Montana,” warning coordination meteorologist Patrick Gilchrist said. What’s interesting about this drought that we find ourselves in is that it come right on the heels of another drought in 2017 where we saw flash drought conditions really being impactful across the region. And we saw improving conditions there for a few years but the last 16 plus months have been some of the driest I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

Gilchrist also says Fort Peck Reservoir could drop three to five feet by the end of the year. There is also a website you can visit to report drought conditions in your area.