‘We’ve never seen anything like this’: How the wildlands of northern Montana are disappearing
Montanans are losing their natural grasslands as part of a massive effort to transform the state from one of the nation’s most productive agricultural areas to one that’s home to an expected 50% decrease in water quality.
For decades, Montana was a land of stunning, diverse landscapes that were home to more than 150,000 native plants and animals.
But now, as the drought intensifies, so too do the loss of these habitats.
A study published last year found that more than 20% of the state’s grasslands were disappearing due to the drought.
And it’s only getting worse.
A new report released Monday by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that the drought is having a significant impact on grasslands across the state, and that more areas are at risk than ever before.
The report found that in the last five years, the number of water-stressed areas in the state has increased from 13.5 million to 22.7 million.
The report also found that nearly two-thirds of the watersheds in the region are experiencing drought-related degradation, and over 90% of Montana’s water has been lost through the end of 2016.
To get a sense of just how severe the drought has been in the area, USGS’s Director of the National Water Resource Assessment, Bob Koehler, spoke with the Montana Wildlands Foundation’s Michael Schoenfeld and John McConkey, who also co-authored the report.
As far as the number and severity of the problems, the researchers said it was clear the drought was having a devastating effect.
Koehlner said, “The amount of degradation is so large that we have to start measuring the impacts on our entire watershed, which is going to be a very long time.
We have to figure out how much water is being lost.
We need to see if the impacts are being felt across our entire state.”
Schoenfeld told CNN that “the worst is yet to come” and that the effects could be catastrophic.
“We’ve seen that in California where the worst is over, and we’ve seen in the Dakotas and the Great Plains that the worst of the worst has already started,” Schoenfield said.
“And it is going in this direction and we need to act now.”
According to Schoenfeld, “the more the drought continues, the more of the wetlands that are there are going to disappear, the less of the water we have available to keep those grasslands alive.”
He said it’s difficult to know how many wetlands have been affected, but he added that the loss is “unprecedented.”
“We have been measuring the grasslands in this region for decades, and this is the largest change that has been seen in these watersheds since we started measuring these in the early 2000s,” he said.
In the report, the USGS also said that water-rich areas in Montana are at greater risk than in the past because of climate change, but that there’s no reason to think this drought will end anytime soon.
The agency is looking at what will happen if we don’t act soon, and says that its scientists have the tools to make the right decisions about water management, particularly if they’re dealing with a changing climate.
“The most important thing that we can do is get to a position where we’re taking our responsibility to manage water resource stewardship seriously and we can be more effective stewards of that water,” Schoehl said.
Schoenfelder said that the situation could worsen if there’s another drought that lasts longer than the current one, or if there is an increase in precipitation.
He added that this drought, while affecting the vast majority of the grassland in the Great Basin, is particularly damaging in the more vulnerable areas.
“You can’t have the same kind of devastation in these more vulnerable parts of the Great Lakes that we’ve had here,” he added.
The authors of the report said that it is important to recognize that there are still more than 1.8 billion people living in the Montana region, and many of them have been impacted by climate change and the impacts of the drought, which have contributed to the loss in vegetation.
“This is a huge concern for the people of Montana,” McConck said.
“It’s one of those places that we need all of our resources, all of them, to get to.”