HEART BUTTE — Rick Ollinger pulled up to a pasture near Heart Butte Tuesday afternoon and started unloading hay for a few dozen cattle.
He'd tried to nudge the cattle in a safe direction before the weekend's record-breaking early snowfall that saw 52 inches in Browning, and drifts in some places piled up much deeper. “We pushed everyone down this way Thursday and Friday, hoping they’d come up” to the road, Ollinger said.
After he and his daughter Rikki Lynn had fed them on Tuesday, Ollinger assessed the herd. Eight cow-calf pairs were unaccounted for, and rounding them up would have to wait until the area melted more. The others looked all right, all things considered. “Yeah, they’ll lose a little bit of weight, but shoot, they look good. I thought they’d look worse than they do.”
Towns along the Rocky Mountain Front were mostly back to normal Tuesday, with schools reopening and a combination of sunshine and snowplows clearing most roads.
But the area’s ranches were still working to extract themselves from the snowdrifts, and account for all their cattle.
“This weather always terrorizes the ranchers,” said Brett Harwood, a longtime employee at Browning Lumber and Hardware. “It’s affecting every one of them.”
Bernard St. Goddard didn’t evince much terror Tuesday. An eight-decade resident of the area, he had known to get ready when the storm was coming. “We got all prepared,” he said. His three sons and grandson hauled hay all day Friday. They gathered into a Quonset hut the tractors and other machines they would need to clear snow afterwards. And he lined up several drums of water in his kitchen to flush the toilet in case his power went out.
Midday Tuesday, the snow on his back deck was still piled halfway up the door. “I’ve been here 80 years. This is the first time I’ve seen it this deep.”
One task he and his family hadn’t had time for was gathering his roughly 500 cattle. “A lot of cattle are still kind of snowbound,” he said. Some of his could be two or three miles into the mountains. He expects they’ll be able to find leaves to munch on in the creek bottoms, but they could face other risks. “Up here there’s grizzlies and wolves,” he said.
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St. Goddard’s son Book arrived at his ranch in a tractor shortly after noon, followed by his daughter-in-law, Verna Billedeaux, in a pickup truck. “It’s pretty deep where we are,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve seen anybody since Thursday.”
Her sunglasses hid a black eye she’d gotten when a roof collapsed while she was shoveling. Billedeaux said she had “no idea” if they’d suffered any losses, but was confident her herd had been able to find shelter in the rippled landscape. “They hunker down in these bottoms. … All it takes is one smart lead cow” to get there.
“When we were out here I could hear cows. … Getting to them is tricky,” she continued. “We’re praying that it melts a little bit. Right now it’s so deep, is the problem.”
The weather here is expected to stay sunny the rest of this week, with temperatures ranging between the upper 20s and upper 40s, then climbing into the low 50s early next week. When this snow melts, St. Goddard predicted, “Those little creeks here could really get high.” But he thinks a little late-season moisture will serve his pasture well. “Truthfully, the snow is good for the country,” he said.
What, if anything, it means for ranchers’ business remains to be seen. St. Goddard generally sells his cows in October. “They probably lose a little weight right now, but if we wait a little bit when the snow goes away, they’ll get it back,” he predicted. But Billedeaux is worried about the cows that have to both provide milk for calves and burn enough calories to stay warm in the snow. “This is going to take it out of those cows,” she said. “You don’t want that to happen, because you go into feeding season with them under-conditioned.”
Green grass still lay beneath the glistening snow, she said. “We’re hoping we survive this.”
Billedeaux is no stranger to the vagaries of weather out here. She grew up on a ranch near Babb, about 60 miles to the north, and learned from her parents to buy three months’ worth of food at a time. Now, in addition to ranching, she works as a Montana State University agricultural extension agent in Browning. She compared what she had seen in that role to an Aesop's fable in which an ant scolds a grasshopper for failing to prepare for winter.
“We have some ants, we have some grasshoppers. We tried to be the ant come Wednesday.
“No sense crying about this weather,” she said.