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Climate change impacts could lead to more severe drought in Montana

Droughts are expected to become more frequent with the impacts of climate change, according to the DNRC's updated Montana’s Drought Management Plan.
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Posted at 1:50 PM, Dec 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-26 15:50:00-05

Droughts are expected to become more frequent with the impacts of climate change, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s updated Montana’s Drought Management Plan to improve water supply and drought management in the state.

Updated after nearly 30 years, the plan is slated to improve monitoring and vulnerability assessments in the state, making sure the state is prepared at all phases of a “drought cycle,” meaning before, during, and after a drought, according to the plan website.

“The launch of the Montana Drought Management Plan is a monumental step forward in our state’s commitment to building resilience against the impacts of drought,” DNRC Director Amanda Kaster said in a statement. “This effort represents the perspectives and feedback of Montanans, and we look forward to this collaboration continuing forward.”

According to the plan, south-central and southwest Montana experiences drought most frequently, including Madison and Carbon counties, while northern portions of the Rocky Mountain front also see drought often. Northeastern Montana experienced the least drought during the last 20 years but has seen disproportionate drought impacts in recent years.

Drought in Montana often means increased fire activity, reduced agricultural yields, and recreational closures, among other impacts, the Daily Montanan reports.


Drought impacts in Montana include:

  • Agriculture: reduced yield
  • Livestock: shortage of feed and culling herds
  • Recreation and tourism: closures
  • Fisheries and wildlife: water supply and quality
  • Human health: air quality from smoke and mental health
  • Forestry: wildfire

Climate change is forecasted to make Montana warmer across geographic regions and impact the “character of drought events with respect to historical frequency and intensity,” according to the plan. Montana temperatures are slated to increase between 4.5 and 6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050.

Because of the differences in geography across the state, it makes it harder to plan, with droughts in the state being “highly variable.”

“Variability resulting from climate change and an increase in the incidence of extreme weather events add additional complexity,” the state’s guide said.

The plan offers guidelines to identify drought severity and location, as well as when it starts and finishes. The vulnerability assessment emphasized all counties are vulnerable to drought throughout the state.

There is also slated to be more variability in precipitation in the state, with less expected during the summer months, meaning there may be more severe summer droughts in the state going forward, and shorter snow seasons.

Montana may also see water evaporate from snowpack, surface water and soil moisture, which could lead to “rapid drought onset and ‘flash drought’ events,” the plan said.

Drought assessment is collected weekly, with stakeholders, including scientists and drought specialists, collaborating to give recommendations to the U.S. Drought Monitor as part of the overall oversight process. Residents can also submit moisture reports through an online portal to help the state gather data to learn what conditions are across Montana.


Adaptation strategies were suggested in the report for major water users in the state, including:

  • Agriculture: Soil health and irrigation water management
  • Conservation and Ecological Services: Maintaining enough water in streams to support ecosystems
  • Energy and Industrial Use: Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations (FIRO) has been recognized by the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) as a promising strategy to address drought-related water shortages
  • Land Management and Fire: Healthy landscapes and fire-adapted communities are more resilient to drought impacts
  • Municipal Water Supply: Considering water conservation measures to help reduce their vulnerability to drought impacts in planning for growth and future water supply needs.
  • Recreation and Tourism: Tourism in Montana depends on maintaining outdoor habitats, “so adaptation should include the strategies developed to support conservation and ecological services,” the plan said.
  • Planning, Policy, and Community Governance: “Comprehensive solutions, such as a soil health program, water banking system, and developing natural storage through both restoration practices and MAR-ASR, will require long term commitments from the state,” the plan said.

“The state can provide a foundation for building drought resiliency in all water-use sectors by developing measurable goals for state-wide water conservation and by providing additional coordination and support for monitoring, research and development, and public outreach, and through dedicated funding,” the adaptation report said.

The plan was put together with 36 stakeholder-generated recommendations to guide resource allocation over the coming decade.

The Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee is made up of representatives from seven state agencies, and the plan included input from hundreds of Montanans including technical experts, government entities, universities, nonprofits, and businesses.

Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, said in a statement the plan better prepares Montana “to meet current and future drought-related challenges.”

Daily Montanan is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Daily Montanan maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Darrell Ehrlick for questions: info@dailymontanan.com. Follow Daily Montanan on Facebook and Twitter.