Hell and High Water: Montana Ranchers Affected by Historic Flooding
Near Roscoe, Montana, Austin Frank watched his neighbor’s house come down the East Rosebud River, redirecting the rising water toward his house, corrals and barns.
Crystal Andersen was working horses at her cousin’s barn when a neighbor walked in, requesting help to get another neighbor’s cattle out of the path of the rising Yellowstone River.
Denise Loyning watched in awe as the Stillwater River filled her ‘nursery pasture,’ floating a calf shed off its moorings, pushing past irrigation head gates, and filling irrigation channels with rock, sand and round bales.
After experiencing significant drought just twelve months ago, southwestern Montana was devastated by historic flooding June 12-13, 2022.
“It was amazing,” Loyning said. “There are so many emotions. It was devastating and incredibly sad for all the people who lost homes. We are facing some significant costs to replace fences, our headgates, likely losing an irrigation season. Yet it was truly amazing to see what the river did in such a short time.”
Montana’s governor Greg Gianforte has requested a presidential disaster declaration and assistance for those affected by this flood, which experts consider a once in a 500 year event.
Ryan Newman, U. S. Bureau of Reclamation Area Manager, described the conditions that developed to bring the deluge down the rivers.
“We had a near average winter,” he said. “We did not have a record snowpack. But we had a very cool, even cold spring, so we never saw much runoff materialize. The snowpack stayed on the mountains. Spring moisture events brought welcome rains to ease the drought from last year, but also brought more snow to the higher elevations. We normally see some runoff earlier but we lost that spring transition because of the cooler than normal weather.”
Then, as the snow started to ‘ripen,’ melting, condensing and becoming slushy, temperatures warmed quickly and a heavy rain sent the vast majority of the snow all off the mountain at once.
“Rain on ripe snow is something we always worry about,” Newman said. “This is definitely a record breaking high flow event. People build based on where the river is at the time, not on where it might be. We are definitely looking at significant numbers in regard to damage: houses, infrastructure, roads, bridges. The larger communities that were affected, such as Red Lodge and of course Yellowstone Park, got a lot more attention than some of the rural areas and smaller communities. Many farmers and ranchers were severely hit but you don’t hear about the individuals on national news.”
Newman said the Bureau of Reclamation made an effort to capture as much water as possible in several dams to help reduce the impact of the flood farther downstream yet they saw high water all the way to Sidney on the Yellowstone River.
“We were able to manage dams and reservoirs to capture a lot of water in the Buffalo Bill dam above Cody, Wyoming, as well as the Yellowtail Dam and the Fort Smith reservoir,” Newman said. “But there has been a big impact on a lot of farmers and ranchers. The Yellowstone River, Clark’s Fork, the Stillwater: every stream off the north basin of the Beartooth and Absarokee ranges flooded. There is a lot that is not making the headlines.”
The East Rosebud river used to make an S-curve through Austin Frank’s ranch. But on June 12, it carved a new channel, plowing straight through and leaving his calving barn and corrals marooned on an island.
“We didn’t have any warning,” Frank said. “The night before we were cleaning corrals, fixing fence. By morning the water was coming into our horse barn. We got the horses out and then tried to move log jams but by one o’clock we had to quit. We always have high water but no one predicted that it would be a 500 year event.”
Frank’s calving barn is on one island and his bull development yard is on a separate island. His cattle are on the other side of the river and though he can see them it would take a ten mile trek around through various neighbors’ places just to put out mineral. Yet even though he’s not sure where to start picking up the pieces and rebuilding, the registered Hereford breeder says that he doesn’t have it as bad as people who lost their homes. He’s thankful that he had moved pairs out the week before and that all his bulls were gone.
“We lost a lot of infrastructure—barns, corrals, calving yards,” he said. “I know we aren’t the only ones; I saw calving sheds and round bale feeders go by in the river. I know there is significant damage to irrigation ditches as well.”
Crystal Andersen was at her cousin’s place riding in his barn when they got called out to help move some pairs that were stranded in a pasture near Worden.
“The cows had gone to a dry spot but the river had moved and was surrounding them,” she said. “We were told that there was two feet of standing water, but when we got there it was definitely not standing and it was more than two feet deep. Those cows acted pretty goofy. They had found a dry spot and didn’t want to leave it, but it was obviously not going to stay dry for long. There were eight of us horseback but the cows ran back on us the first time we tried to get them to cross the water. Some of the cows were trying to take our horses. I have no idea exactly how long we were out there, but it felt like forever, almost like we were in slow motion with the constant moving of the water and the wind whipping.”
The second time they approached the water parallel to the current and managed to get the cows across; then at the bottom of the pasture they had to cross a bar ditch where the water was so deep that when the cows jumped in they went completely under. But the cattle were all accounted for when they were done.
“It was a very humbling experience,” Andersen said.
L Bar W Cattle Company near Columbus headquarters are on the Stillwater River.
“She showed us what she can do,” Denise Loyning said. “We have chosen to live on the river and we know that comes with inherent risk. We have chosen to live in her space and now we have to figure out how to work through what she has handed us and focus on how this will make us better.”
But right now the damage is overwhelming.
“In this industry we have a lot to cover,” Loyning said. “We are always dealing with the season at hand. Right now our priority has to be putting up our hay. We can’t stop everything to figure out how and where to rebuild. I don’t know how we will be ready for the next season, how to get ready to calve by January 1, what our options will be next March when we need breeding pastures that will not be ready. But at the end of the day we will figure out how to be better and move forward.”
Loyning said that while flood warnings were sent out, nobody prepared them for the magnitude of this event. Yet to her knowledge, there was no loss of human life or loss of livestock.
Early on Monday morning, June 13, she saw the water rise over a foot in thirty minutes and knew that the only thing left to do was wait it out and watch what the river would do.
“At that point I knew it was going to get western,” Loyning said. “The Stock Association board met a few days later and it was suggested that we hold a benefit auction to raise money for fencing materials to donate to affected producers. We’re here to help and we hope that it’s something that can make a difference. We’ve been very humbled by the generous outpouring of support already in donation items.”
Meanwhile, affected producers are trying to figure out what to tackle first. Immediate needs to get hay put up may delay rebuilding but not for long. Austin Frank needs to preg-test his embryo transfer cows but has no way to get them to his marooned and damaged working facilities.
“The biggest challenge is that nobody knows how to handle this,” Frank said. “Where do we start? I don’t know how to move a house out of the river or how to get the water diverted back to the old channel. I used to love the sound of the river but now I hate the sound of water.”
“It was amazing to see the power of the water,” Loyning said. “Standing on the bank, hearing trees snap and feeling the boulders moving gave me a whole new respect for the river.”
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