As drought conditions around the state continued to intensify, the city of Choteau imposed irrigation water restrictions on July 19 and Stage 1 fire restrictions went into effect on the Rocky Mountain Ranger District on July 17.

Mayor Chris Hindoien said the restrictions are a proactive move on behalf of the Public Works Department based on the current weather and the long-term forecast of continued high heat and temperature. “We will address these restrictions on a regular basis throughout the remainder of summer,” he said.

The city of Choteau, which has 702 water-user accounts including residential and commercial users, has imposed irrigation water restrictions from time to time through the years, most recently in 2008.

Under the restrictions, city residents may not irrigate their flowers, trees, lawns or gardens from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Residents with even-numbered street addresses may irrigate outside of those hours on even-numbered days of the month. Likewise, residents with odd-numbered street addresses may irrigate outside of those hours on odd-numbered days of the month.

The restrictions apply only to city residents who use the city water system to irrigate. Those who have their own private, sand-point wells may continue to use those for irrigation, but Hindoien noted that everyone shares the same aquifer.

Choteau Public Works Director Mike Maples on Monday said the hot, dry weather and long-term forecasts predicting more of the same have prompted water restrictions for lawn irrigation for city water users. Ground water levels throughout the Teton River valley around Choteau are dropping much faster this year than in the past few years, he said, citing the following statistics:

•Ground water levels recorded at the city of Choteau test well for July 1 were similar to normal mid-August levels (typically the lowest annual levels) — six weeks ahead of normal.

•A ground water well monitored by the Department of Natural Resources upstream of Choteau has dropped 5.3 feet in the last month and is almost four feet lower than normal for this time of year.

•Wells monitored by DNRC in town have dropped one to 1.5 feet in the past month, again, much ahead of the typical mid-August drop.

•The primary well used to supply water to the city system, the Richem Well, is running about two to three feet below normal for this time of year.

Maples said the Richem Well still has ample pumping capacity, and the city also has the old Water Works well, if needed. “Currently, we are in no danger of running out of water,” Maples said. “The irrigation restrictions are a pre-emptive measure to conserve water now as August may be a long, hot and dry month.”

The restrictions come as Stage 1 fire restrictions go into effect on the Rocky Mountain Ranger District and in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and Gov. Greg Gianforte has declared a statewide wildland fire emergency.

At the request of Teton County Fire Chief Steve Rose, the Teton County Commissioners have already banned all open burning in the county, but camp fires are still allowed within fire rings on private and county lands.

Gianforte on July 14 issued an executive order declaring a statewide wildland fire emergency in Montana.

“Montana faces critical fire conditions that pose significant threats to our communities, infrastructure, first responders, and way of life,” Gianforte said in a press release. “As our firefighters battle active fires across the state with more to come, this executive order helps ensure they have the suppression resources, supplies, and fuel they need to safely and aggressively respond.”

As of July 14, nearly 1,400 wildland fires have burned more than 141,000 acres in Montana. Of these fires approximately 78% have been human caused, adding a significant workload to volunteer and agency wildland firefighters.

“I’m urging all Montanans and visitors to our state to do their part. Follow local fire restrictions, prepare your homes and communities for wildfire, and recreate and work safely to ensure you’re not adding to our wildland firefighters’ workload by inadvertently starting a wildfire. Our dedicated, courageous first responders are depending on us all,” the governor said.

The governor issued Executive Order 12-2021 in response to the extremely dry and dangerous wildfire conditions that exist across the state and to the national shortage of firefighting resources.

The executive order will help procure additional resources and tools for the state’s wildland firefighters, including the authorization for the governor to mobilize the Montana National Guard to assist in fire suppression efforts.

Executive Order 12-2021 will also help provide relief to local and volunteer firefighters, who have been integral in providing tireless response efforts, but have been strained under the current record-setting fire season. It also acknowledges the importance of aggressive initial attack and the critical role of cooperation among suppression agencies.

The governor’s executive order also authorizes him to activate the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC). EMAC is a nationally adopted mutual aid agreement that allows states to share resources with one another during times of emergency or disaster.

The hot and abnormally dry conditions are expected to continue through August, and new wildland fire starts are likely throughout much of the state.

On July 16, the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest announced fire restrictions across the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex within the Lincoln and Rocky Mountain ranger districts, starting July 17. This order also put fire restrictions on the Rocky Mountain Ranger District. Much of the forest was already under Stage 1 restrictions as of July 9.

Under Stage 1 restrictions:

•Stove fires, campfires and charcoal fires are allowed only at developed campgrounds and developed recreation sites where U.S. Forest Service metal fire rings are provided. Fires within rock fire rings are not authorized.

•Camping stoves fueled solely by liquid petroleum or LPG fuels may be used anywhere on National Forest System lands.

•The use of portable stoves, lanterns using gas, jellied petroleum, pressurized liquid fuel or a fully enclosed (sheepherder type) stove with a quarter-inch spark arrester type screen is permitted.

•Smoking is allowed only within an enclosed vehicle or building, a developed recreation site or while stopped in an area at least three feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable materials.

•No fires are allowed within designated or recommended wilderness or wilderness study areas within the closure area.

•USFS outfitters and guides are allowed to have a fire in a stove with a properly installed and maintained spark arrester.

Developed recreation sites on the Rocky Mountain Ranger District that will continue to allow campfires in metal rings, include: Benchmark Campground, Cave Mountain Campground, Double Falls Campground, Elko Campground, Home Gulch Campground, the Kenck Cabin, Mills Falls Campground, Mortimer Gulch Campground, South Fork Campground, Summit Campground, VanDeRiet Campground, West Fork Teton Campground, Wood Lake Picnic Area and the West Fork Cabin.

Last week also saw the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks staff urge anglers to use extra care when handling fish during the continuing hot summer days.

“Water temperatures have been steadily increasing, and with warm overnight temperatures and no major cool down in sight, we want to remind people how important it is to minimize handling any fish that they intend to release,” said Jason Rhoten, FWP fisheries manager in Great Falls. “One important way that anglers can help minimize catch-and-release mortality is by limiting their fishing to only the cooler morning hours.”

Rhoten added that it is important to land fish quickly and to not lift fish from the water when unhooking them or taking photos.

“Try to do all you can to minimize any stress to the fish that comes from being handled,” Rhoten said.

Despite low water flows and rising temperatures, the tailwaters of the Upper Missouri River are still open to fishing, although other fishing restrictions are in place for numerous rivers across Montana. Biologists are closely monitoring the Missouri, should conditions warrant imposing fishing restrictions there.

“We haven’t yet hit that temperature threshold to propose restrictions on the Missouri,” Rhoten said. “But no one has a crystal ball to see what the rest of our summer weather will look like. We still have a couple months of what are normally some of the hottest weather of the year. We need anglers to do their part to ensure that the fish survive this summer and are there to be caught again in the future.”

For a full list of fishing restrictions, visit FWP’s website: https://fwp.mt.gov/news/current-closures-restrictions.

The scorching weather has also prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to initiate drought disaster assistance to Montana farmers and livestock producers. As local agricultural producers move into recovery mode and assess damages, they should contact the Teton County USDA Service Center to report losses and learn more about program options available to assist in their recovery from crop, land, infrastructure and livestock losses and damages.

The Service Center is located at 1102 Main Ave. N., Choteau, and can be reached at 406-466-5351.

“Unfortunately, conditions continue to deteriorate across Montana with more than half of the state experiencing severe to extreme drought,” said Gloria Montaño Greene, deputy undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation. “I am thankful that USDA can step in with disaster assistance programs designed to alleviate some of the financial impact experienced by agricultural producers suffering drought losses.”

USDA disaster assistance programs include:

•The Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish Program

USDA Disaster Assistance for Drought Recovery, which provides eligible producers with compensation for expenses associated with transporting water to livestock physically located in a county that is designated as level “D3 Drought - Extreme” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

•The Livestock Forage Disaster Program for 2021 grazing losses because of drought. LFP benefits may also be available for grazing losses because of wildfires on federally managed lands on which a producer is prohibited, by a federal agency, from grazing normally permitted livestock.

•Emergency haying and grazing of Conservation Reserve Program acres may be authorized (outside of the primary nesting season) to provide relief to livestock producers in areas affected by a severe drought or similar natural disaster.

•Direct and guaranteed loans, including operating and emergency loans, to producers unable to secure commercial financing. Producers in counties with a primary or contiguous disaster designation may be eligible for low-interest emergency loans to help them recover from production and physical losses. Loans can help producers replace essential property, purchase inputs like livestock, equipment, feed and seed, cover family living expenses or refinance farm-related debts and other needs.

•Federal Crop Insurance.

•Emergency Conservation Program to assist landowners with financial and technical help to restore fencing and damaged farmland.

•Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is always available to provide technical assistance in the recovery process by assisting producers to plan and implement conservation practices on farms and ranches impacted by natural disasters.

“As soon as you can evaluate drought impact on your operation, be sure to contact your local FSA office to timely report all crop, livestock and farm infrastructure damages and losses,” said Les Rispens, acting state executive director for the Farm Service Agency in Montana. “To expedite FSA disaster assistance, you will likely need to provide documents, such as farm records, herd inventory, receipts and pictures of damages or losses.”