Water, water, everywhere, posing huge challenge to Western land managers

For nearly 80 years, a highlight for visitors to northwest Montana's Glacier National Park has been the 50-mile drive along the park's spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Road.

The mountain-hugging road, peaking at 6,600 feet, offers dazzling views of alpine lakes, waterfalls and towering spruce, cedar and lodgepole pines, as well as the park's namesake glaciers and the rugged tundra below.

But until this week, visitors have been denied the Going-to-the-Sun Road experience because most of the road has been buried under as much as 30 feet of snow.

The National Park Service finally opened the final buried sections yesterday -- the latest opening date since the road was completed in 1933.

"We had a really high snowpack this year -- well, well above normal," said Glacier spokesman Bill Hayden. "Then you add to that the fact that we had a cold, rainy and in some cases snowy spring, and really, that's what dictates how quickly the road can be opened."

The delay in opening the Going-to-the-Sun Road is just one example of the havoc caused by near-record snowpack levels across the Intermountain West, and illustrates how federal land managers, and the public facilities, infrastructure and wildlife they oversee, continue to struggle.

Huge snowfall across the Rockies and the Northern Plains this winter and spring resulted in a record snowpack that in normal years would have melted in April and May. But across the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and northern Colorado, wet weather and sagging temperatures allowed the snowpack to stay in place longer, resulting in an unprecedented summertime melt that is sending torrents of water down mountain springs and rivers.

All of this has created conditions not seen in generations at some of the nation's premier parks, monuments and refuges as well as on lesser-known public lands that are used for recreation, wildlife management, grazing, mining and other activities.

For example, runoff has washed out roads at Bureau of Land Management sites in Utah, Montana and Colorado, closed camping grounds and flooded hiking trails and designated off-highway vehicle (OHV) routes.


BLM's Billings Field Office in south-central Montana recently reported that numerous roads, trails and OHV routes across the region "have suffered considerable damage from recent rain and floods," according to an agency notice that included a warning that travel on such thoroughfares should be conducted "at the individual's own risk."

BLM's Worland Field Office in north-central Wyoming had to close Slick Creek Road, a popular OHV route that winds through Rattlesnake Ridge, "due to dangerous washouts caused by unusually high spring and early summer moisture," according to an agency notice.

The washouts "pose severe public health and safety risks," according to BLM, including the real possibility of Slick Creek Road literally crumbling underneath riders.

"The washouts have nearly eroded the entire running surface of Slick Creek Road on the east end of the route and are dissolving other portions of the road," said Paul Rau, BLM's outdoor recreation manager.

Rising waters

At Yellowstone National Park, water levels in the Yellowstone River are approaching record levels as melting snowpack, mostly from the Absaroka Range in the Rockies, fills Yellowstone Lake, which feeds the river.

The river is expected to reach peak flows by the end of the week -- slightly below the record level of 8.9 feet set in 1997, said Al Nash, a park spokesman. Water will overtop the Yellowstone River's banks at 9 feet, he said.

What makes the current high water unusual is that it is occurring so late in the summer. That last record water level, in 1997, was set on June 18, a full month earlier. Normal river flows through Yellowstone in mid-July are typically much lower. The monthly mean water level for July over the past six years is 5.9 feet; the water level mean through the first 12 days of July is about 8.3 feet, said Chris Jones, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Riverton, Wyo.

The record snowpack can be traced to La Niña, a weather phenomenon marked by cooler water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that spark cooler and wetter winter conditions in much of the West and Pacific Northwest but warmer and drier conditions across the Southwest (Land Letter, April 21). As a result, huge amounts of snow and rain fell across much of the Pacific Northwest, the Northern Rockies, the Sierra Nevada and northern and western Alaska between November and May.

Because the snowmelt is so late and its impacts are unpredictable, officials are cautioning visitors to be aware of rapidly changing conditions.

BLM last month warned boaters, campers and anglers along the Colorado, Dolores, Green, San Rafael and White rivers to be prepared to move quickly when the snowpack melts, because when it does, these rivers "can rise dramatically in a very short amount of time," according to a public advisory issued by the agency.

That warning remains in effect, said Aaron Curtis, BLM recreation program lead for the BLM Utah state office in Salt Lake City.

"We've probably seen the worst of it," Curtis said. "But the snowmelt continues to come down, and people need to be careful."

Pronghorn bottleneck

The unusual weather has also affected wildlife at some parks and refuges.

One of the most dramatic examples is at the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana, where nearly 2,000 pronghorn antelope are trapped along the southern banks of the Fort Peck Reservoir within the refuge.

The pronghorn are trying to migrate north to summer fawning grounds in northern Montana and southern Canada, but they cannot get across the swollen reservoir, which stretches more than a mile wide in places, said Randy Matchett, a senior wildlife biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service who is based at the refuge.

Every year, clusters of pronghorn reach the banks of the reservoir after it has melted. Some are unable to cross, while others drown trying to cross the wide stretch of water, Matchett said.

But this year, high snows and cold temperatures prompted significantly larger numbers of pronghorn to migrate south across the reservoir during their seasonal southward migration. The result is that many more animals are trying to migrate back north, but are being blocked by the swollen reservoir.

Matchett said a recent aerial survey along an 80-mile stretch of the reservoir counted 1,722 stranded pronghorn, many of which have been idle for months. The blocked pronghorn may have to spend the summer months on the southern bank of the reservoir and attempt to cross in early 2012 when it freezes again.

"Their fate remains unknown," Matchett said. "All we can do is wait and watch."

Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.

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