LAME DEER — The task of digging out the snow-bound Northern Cheyenne Reservation has now given way to problems of logistics, as tribal officials scramble to distribute donated wood, propane, hay and other supplies to replace goods that have for weeks been dwindling in homes and on ranches throughout the sprawling reservation.

Those who rely on wood for heat have been in particularly dire straits, said Ernestine Spang, the tribe’s director of emergency services. She referred to the hundreds of calls she’s gotten from families with no source of heat as temperatures dipped as low as the single digits.

In one case, a family had started breaking apart wooden furniture to fuel their wood stove, she said.

The tribe’s road crews and hired contractors have for about a month been fighting just to keep roads clear after back-to-back snowstorms on the reservation, including one that struck last weekend, after Gov. Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency in two counties and on three reservations in Montana, including the Northern Cheyenne.

“We didn't get close to (the snowfall) you guys got,” Spang said, “But we did get the wind and we did have to send out the plows again, because a lot of people got drifted back in.”

During the past week, tribal law enforcement has taken on the job of wood distribution. Two truckloads of logs arrived from Townsend on Tuesday, and the police department parking lot has since transformed into a makeshift lumber yard, where tribal forestry employees cut logs and pass them to a team of jail inmates operating a generator-powered log splitter.

Inmates split donated wood to be distributed on the Northern Cheyenne reservation Wednesday, March 7, 2018. CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Tribal forestry technician Jerome Whitehawk said he’s at least happy to have some work during a season when his crew is typically laid off for a month or so.

“Usually around this time, it’s already melting and pretty muddy out,” limiting access to nearby forests, Whitehawk said. “We’ll be cutting this for about a week.”

There will still be a need once the two donated loads are processed into firewood, however. He estimated it’s only enough to supply about half the need for wood on the reservation, and already the tribe has rationed the allotments of firewood to one-quarter of a cord per household.

The forests where tribal members typically gather their own still have little to no access due to the more than three feet of snow that fell on the reservation in the past month. It’s finally started to melt this week, but looking around at the massive snow berms piled up around him, Whitehawk estimated this to be the harshest winter he’s seen since the late 1970s.

Tribal employees move snow in Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne reservation Wednesday, March 7, 2018. CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Plowing out roads and driveways to allow the elderly and those with medical needs to access critical services was the first priority for Spang’s emergency workers. By Wednesday most of the roads around Lame Deer were relatively clear and dry, aside from the channels where substantial snowmelt was already beginning to trickle toward lower ground.

Despite the restored access, many families are without means to purchase food after missing work because of the weather, as well as the added expenses the storms brought, including heating.

“The storm before this last weekend, that was the toughest one,” Spang said. “The first and second rounds of storms we got (in February), they hadn’t gotten to the people from the first round, and so it was even deeper and harder to remove.”

In the unfinished basement of a construction site slated to become the new Everything Beautiful Thrift Store in Lame Deer, about a dozen tribal employees and high-school volunteers bagged apples and potatoes and packed boxes full of canned peaches, instant rice, maple syrup and other shelf-stable packaged foods.

Volunteers pack donated food for distribution at the new Everything Beautiful thrift store building in Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne reservation Wednesday, March 7, 2018. CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Suzette Schreffler, the thrift store’s owner, said she opened the facility to the food-packing effort last night, when a semi truck delivered the first load of food, about $17,000 in groceries donated by the Montana chapter of Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters.

“Already, people are living paycheck to paycheck, and on top of all the snow and people not being able to leave their homes, it just complicates their struggle,” Schreffler said. “We’re here to help serve the community, whatever that takes.”

The food, purchased this week from the Missoula Food Bank, should be enough to feed 500 to 600 families for the next four to five days, said Dick Deschamps, president of the Montana organization.

Donated food for distribution at the new Everything Beautiful thrift store building in Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne reservation Wednesday, March 7, 2018. CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Even if they already have food, he noted it can help offset the cost of other necessities for those on the reservation. And, Deschamps said, the needs aren't just limited to food, but to wood, hay and other household goods. 

Hay has been a hard commodity to come by. About 40 to 45 livestock owners had contacted the tribe’s Department of Land, Grazing and Range Resources, said range resource manager Don Burns. Those who mostly own horses have been hit particularly hard, Burns said.

“Typically the cattle owners will have surplus hay, and the horse owners will buy that from them around this time of year, but the (ranch) operators are strapped this year,” Burns said. “We started getting snow here in November and it never left the ground. Animals just can’t graze at all.”

Hay donations from around the state and as far away as Idaho will just begin trickling into the hay bale drop-off point this week, but it’s short of what will be needed to get the cash-strapped ranchers through the end of a seemingly endless winter.

And although the long-awaited spring melt is finally being realized, tribal officials half-joked that they’ll simply have to switch gears from a snow emergency to dealing with rising floodwaters.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it don't get bad," Spang said. "But because of that melt, we could see something similar to flash flooding, depending on how much rain we're going to get Friday."