With temperatures pushing into the 50s on Thursday morning, Steve Karkanen headed into the Rattlesnake Mountains north of Missoula to check the snowpack.
The director of the West Central Montana Avalanche Center expected to encounter a wet but stable snowpack – a sign of a hearty winter.
He also expected his resulting avalanche report to be the last report issued by the center this season.
“After tomorrow, people who go into the backcountry will have to be their own avalanche expert,” Karkanen said. “We’re out of funding for the season.”
As winter winds down and spring activities pick up, the avalanche center, along with U.S. Forest Service ranger districts across the region, are switching gears with the season.
Snowmobile trail grooming on the Missoula, Superior and Seeley Lake ranger districts of the Lolo National Forest is done for the season, along with the Powell District on the Clearwater National Forest.
Roads that were closed to wheeled traffic during the grooming season may begin opening in some locations. Spring travel restrictions have been implemented in other districts to protect soft roadbeds and grizzly habitat.
“We’ve got a couple areas that closed on Monday, one on the west side of Highway 83 and one on the east side,” said Scott Tomson, wildlife biologist with the Seeley Lake Ranger District. “Those upper area closures are really in place to protect denning habitat, and where females with cubs are coming out of their dens.”
The closures pertain to snowmobiles and, in some cases, wheeled vehicles. The closures vary by district, and Tomson advised visitors to call ahead for the latest information.
With the warming weather, the Flathead River at Columbia Falls has risen 2 feet since Monday, while the Blackfoot River at Bonner has risen nearly 1 foot.
“We’ve gone through four to five days where it hasn’t dropped below freezing,” said Karkanen. “I’m expecting to see a snowpack that’s pretty wet when I get out there today.”
The avalanche center’s advisory area includes the Bitterroot Mountains from Lost Trail Pass north to Lookout Pass. It also includes the Rattlesnake Mountains and the southern Swan and Mission mountains near Seeley Lake.
Karkanen, who plans to issue his final avalanche report of the season Friday morning, said that while snowfall has been minimal in the valleys of western Montana, upper elevations are sitting at near 95 percent of average.
The snowpack has been stable much of the season, he said, resulting in a safe backcountry travel season.
“We haven’t had any avalanche fatalities in Montana this year, which has been rare,” Karkanen said. “It’s more a factor of the stability of the snowpack we’ve had. We’ve seen more people in the backcountry this year than in previous years.”