Winter Roars But Montana Endures Snow: Waiting for spring, buried under snowfalls measured in feet, Montanans can only hope the experience will send the faint of heart back to milder climes.


MISSOULA, Montana - Elsewhere in the country, basketball fans are easing into their La-Z-Boys, clicking on their big-screen TVs and reveling in March Madness. But out here in Big Sky Country, an altogether different sort of March Madness consumes us.

Throughout much of Montana, we remain locked in the jaws of the worst winter on record, and it's only starting to show signs of breaking. Revel is the furthest thing from our minds.

The nation's attention understandably has been riveted on states such as Ohio, Kentucky and Arkansas, where floods and twisters have wreaked havoc. Perhaps people assume that Montana winters are always severe, that the tough-as-jerky residents of this obscure state have become inured to the whims of nature. This simply isn't so.

In Missoula, we've never seen a winter like this one - the snowiest since the National Weather Service began keeping records, in 1893. It's not just the droves of wide-eyed newcomers from California, Washington, Colorado and points east who've been taken by surprise.

We're all overwhelmed. We're exhausted. We've shoveled and plowed until we've run out of place to move the snow. Even as we fervently pray for spring weather, we know that the melting of

our tremendous snowpack will cause calamitous flooding.

Gov. Marc Racicot has, in fact, already declared a state of emergency in anticipation of what warmer weather will bring.

Even here, in the so-called Garden City, 104.5 inches, or more than 8 feet, of snow has fallen this season. The previous record, set in 1921-22, was 95.5 inches. Our old joke about having nine months of winter and three months of houseguests has begun to pall.

In comparison with other parts of the state, Missoula has gotten off light.

In Essex, at the southern tip of Glacier National Park, more than 29 feet of snow has compacted into an 8-foot-deep mass. At Lolo Pass, about 40 miles west of Missoula, more than 13 feet of snow has fallen, and Forest Service rangers are begging cross-country skiers to stay away while they look for the visitors center and parking lot.

You don't get this much snow without having more problems than shoveling and plowing. In Lincoln County, northwest of Missoula, snow has flattened at least 37 large buildings and sent damage estimates soaring into the millions of dollars.

Residents of Browing, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, ran out of firewood in December and had to be rescued from the cold by a convoy of trucks bearing logs donated by sawmills.

Four-legged creatures are suffering as well.

More than 1,000 bison fleeing deep, crusted snow and certain starvation in Yellowstone National Park have been slaughtered by government agents, supposedly in an attempt to block the spread of disease to cattle on neighboring ranches.

Deer and elk in northwestern Montana are taking a beating, too, as food sources remain locked beneath snow and ice. State biologists count an average of only 17 calves per 100 elk cows surviving midway through the winter, and winterkill is far from over.

Montanans historically are no strangers to rotten weather. In 1876-77, for instance, the notorious "Hard Winter" robbed cattlemen of up to 90 percent of their herds, drove many of them into bankruptcy and spelled the end of the open range in Montana.

Some of us even derive a certain perverse pleasure from our climate, hoping that all the Johnny-come-lately residents of the state, who drive up housing prices and overpopulate our fishing holes, will flee to gentler climes.

But even we die-hard Montanans get tired sometimes. Faced with this relentless winter, even we begin to question whether it's madness to hang on here.

Montana has never been an easy place to make a go of it. Career opportunities are limited, wages low. But when my husband and I moved here in 1982, we were smitten with its rawness, lack of class-consciousness, wide-open people and even wider-open spaces.

We all drove modest cars and lived in modest homes. We all seemed to understand how each of us fit into the fabric of our tightly knit communities. We were untouched by the trendiness that had marred states such as Colorado and New Mexico.

And because of all this, we could tolerate the frequently abysmal weather.

Today, of course, our state is transformed. Range Rovers, Jaguars and even the odd stretch limousine ply our roads. Monstrously huge homes spring up seemingly overnight on land traditionally home to deer, elk and other wildlife.

Hollywood has discovered us, and espresso bars spread like knapweed. As our sense of community erodes, it's becoming increasingly hard to remember why we're here.

Then a winter like this comes along - a winter that requires of us tremendous patience, stamina and the conviction that we are, indeed, living in the Last Best Place.

I find myself asking my husband what he thinks about moving to Arizona, saying things to him like, "I'm leaving here and never coming back."

And then something happens that reminds me why I stay. I peer out the bedroom window to watch the snow, to grumble one more time about our infernal weather.

Flakes as big as 50-cent pieces fill the sky. Looking back at me, from just 10 feet away, is a mule deer doe with a fawn in tow. We exchange penetrating looks for several seconds, fellow animals locked in a struggle against a common enemy.

Then they disappear into the night in search of food, in search of spring.

Closing the curtains, I reflect that this isn't such a bad place, after all. We live in magically close proximity to nature and, despite the many changes, our atmosphere remains wholesome.

Montana is home to many people who are the salt of the earth and is largely free of the crime that plagues other parts of this country. The simple things are still around.

We just have to dig a little harder to find them now, like deer seeking food beneath snow.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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