A few weeks ago during a stretch of winter that is typically the coldest and whitest in southwest Montana, local golf pro Jed Slocum looked out with amazement at Valley View Golf Club's bare fairways in Bozeman, then joined friends for a round on the links.
Normally, the snow doesn't clear from this golf course until April.
"I've lived here 12 years and I can't remember another time when you could golf in January, let alone do it in short sleeves," Mr. Slocum says of the weird anomaly of being able to tee up here before Super Bowl Sunday. "Winters in Bozeman are supposed to be about skiing deep powder in the mountains."
A golfer's delight, however, may be portending smoke-filled skies, desperate ranchers, and the cancellation of fishing when real summer actually arrives three months from now, experts say.
Montana, now in its seventh consecutive year of extreme drought, has experienced warmer and drier weather on several days in January and February than the deserts around Phoenix.
"The public perception, because of all the flooding in Arizona and California, might be that things out West are better, moisture wise, but for the northern half of the region, that's not true," says Michael Hayes, a climate impacts specialist at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb. "In fact, conditions have gotten worse and in some cases markedly worse."
And there's no indication of relief in sight as all major storms have tracked well to the south. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the tentacles of drought now extend across five states from Oregon and Washington 1,800 miles inland to the high plains of Wyoming and Montana.
Rainforests along the Pacific Coast are strangely tinder dry. Ski resorts in the Cascades never opened because of sparse snowfall. In the northern Rockies, two dozen different river drainages are at 50 percent of their normal snow levels.
Although it's only March, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer this week offered a grim prediction that he expects massive wildfires to rage this summer. He's asked the Pentagon to consider redeploying 1,500 National Guard troops from Iraq to instead be made available for firefighting that some experts believe could be as intense as the summers of 1988 and 2000 when millions of acres burned.
During those years, millions of additional acres of national parks and national forests in the West were closed down to prevent fires, hamstringing the livelihoods of dude ranchers and resorts that cater to vacationers.
Everywhere in the drought belt, high temperature records this winter have been shattered. The city of Spokane, Wash., received less rain and snowfall in February than any year going back to the first weather log entry in 1881. Balmy temperatures also have caused cherry trees, lilacs, and flower beds to bloom three months early.
"The drought was bad in 2004, but it's quite a bit more serious than last year," says Dennis Miotke, a water manager in Dillon, Mont., who says that low reservoir levels will mean that many farmers will be unable to irrigate their crops and cattle pastures. Water, he notes, is crucial to their economic survival.
At the Clark Canyon Reservoir that was built to ensure reliable water delivery for hundreds of ranching families, he adds, "We're already 6 to 8 percent below where we were last year and last year we broke records for how little water we had," Mr. Miotke says.
Montana would have to receive 350 percent of its normal snowfall in the next six weeks to make up the deficit and bring snowpack accumulation in the mountains back to average, says Roy Kaiser of the state Natural Resources and Conservation Service, which tracks snowpack across the state.
But even if Montana were to be suddenly deluged with waves of spring blizzards, which isn't likely, it's going to take years of above-average snowfall and rainfall to begin refilling underground aquifers that are depleted, Mr. Kaiser says.
Low water also results in conflicts between water users, and battles may be brewing not only between ranchers, municipalities forced to ration water, and recreationists who want to keep aqua in streams for fish, but also between states upstream along the Missouri River such as Montana and the Dakotas and downstream states such as Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri.
For now, however, the jump-start on the golf season is worrisome for fishing guides and whitewater rafting companies that depend on good flows to sustain Montana's multimillion dollar tourism industry.
"Everybody talks about agriculture, but the impact of drought on tourism is something that seldom gets noticed," Mr. Hayes says. "The families who run recreation-related businesses don't have federal disaster-relief programs to fall back on like farmers do."