HELENA – Montana’s governor declared a state of emergency Tuesday on three Indian reservations due to extreme cold, heavy snow and blizzard conditions this winter.
Residents of the Blackfeet reservation just east of Glacier National Park have been struggling all month with loose snow and strong winds causing huge drifts that have shut down travel at times, closed schools and made it difficult to get food and other supplies to the area.
The town of East Glacier, just to the southwest of Browning, has received 80 inches of snow this month, the National Weather Service said. Browning likely received a bit less, but when the wind comes up it blows around causing whiteout conditions along with bitter cold wind chill temperatures and snowdrifts.
“There are 20-foot drifts in some places,” said Robert DesRosier, emergency manager for the Blackfeet Tribe. “We have 12- to 15-foot deep drifts over 100 yards long.”
Plows are detouring through prairies to get around some drifted-in areas, he said.
“We’ve had to cut fences and go across country,” DesRosier said.
The tribe was on day 16 of its current storm Tuesday and has had a command post open for 10 days to organize food deliveries and answer other calls for help, he said.
Plows had made some progress clearing roads Monday, “but we lost it all overnight,” to the wind, he said..
One family was snowed in for three days because they were unable to open their doors. Others crawled out of their windows to get out of the house, he said. Ranchers have lost newborn calves.
The state Department of Transportation has sent in extra crews with rotary plows and other heavy equipment to help with the ongoing effort.
Gov. Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency on the Blackfeet reservation along with the Fort Belknap and Northern Cheyenne reservations, also in northern Montana; as well as Glacier and Golden Valley counties. The Blackfeet had declared their own state of emergency in early January and it’s still in effect, DesRosier said.
The town of Heart Butte, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains on the southern end of the reservation, has been isolated at times. School has been canceled 12 of the past 14 school days, Superintendent Lee Folley said.
Getting food and other supplies to the reservation has happened in fits and starts, he said.
Some people did get out Monday to go shopping and stock up. Poverty on the reservation prevents some others from doing the same.
“This is a very strong community and they take care of each other,” said Folley, who has lived in Heart Butte for 18 months.
One rancher contacted him about getting some diesel fuel the school has for buses so he can get food to his livestock.
“He lost a calf last night,” Folley said, adding that he’s concerned the weather forecast calls for another foot of snow this weekend.
“Then it’s going to start the cycle all over again,” he said.