“Totally and completely forgotten about”

South county ranchers looking for answers
Thursday, August 11, 2022
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Cattle rancher Dirk Pelton stands on what is now one dead-end of Stillwater River Road. SCN photo by Marlo Pronovost.

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Between the downed trees in the foreground and the haybales to the west used to be a section of the Stillwater River Road as well as private agriculture land. SCN photo by Marlo Pronovost.

ABSAROKEE — On an already sweltering recent Monday morning, three ranchers stood on what now is the end of North Stillwater River Road and pointed approximately 900 hundred feet to the west to where a handful of round haybales sat.

Between the men and the hay used to be the county roadway and private ranch land.

It is now a new channel of the Stillwater River, thanks to the historic June 13 flooding.

The hay — and property on which it sat — belonged to Richard Bridges, a grass hay producer who owns and works approximately 320 acres. In addition to lost hay and land, Bridges now cannot access the best crop he has had for years.

In the same boat are his neighbors, father-son cattle ranchers Stanley and Dirk Pelton. The Pelton cattle ranch also suffered destruction that is keeping it from accessing a piece of property where the calving shed is located — a situation that is of growing concern as the days keep clicking by.

Shari and Terry Ekwortzel share a similar story for their hay-producing and cattle ranch in Nye.

“So we’ve had this moisture-wonder year incredible hay crop and yet still won’t break even because of the flood damage,” said Shari Ekwortzel. “It’s like a different landscape on the fields of debris, rocks and silt.”

HIT HARD

Ranchers are historically some of the toughest folks around. They work long hours and don’t like to ask for help. The events of the last seven weeks have changed that a bit for many south county ag producers who simply need a break and a little help.

All three ranches above — and many others — suffered damage on multiple levels — land-loss, fences, panels and the like.

The Pelton’s also lost one calf, but say that kind of thing happens during a natural disaster and is not entirely preventable.  The four also understand that property loss due to flooding is something that likely will not be reversed.

What does concern all four ranchers is that during the last seven weeks, there has been no attention on agriculture land issues or contact from local officials — specifically from the county commissioners. Meanwhile, recreational areas seemed to have been given a higher priority in opening back up.

The ranchers have seen drones and helicopters flying overhead often, but until just recently, no contact from county officials.

“We’ve been totally and completely forgotten about,” said Dirk Pelton.

Commissioner Steve Riveland did talk to Bridges in recent days.

Riveland and Commissioner Chairman Tyrel Hamilton told the News this week that they did not personally stop at all impacted ranches because there was nothing they could do or offer.

“It would have been like ‘We’re from the government and we are here to help’ but we couldn’t have helped,” said Hamilton.

There are approximately 20 ranches in the Nye and Absarokee area, according to Nye Fire Chief Ryland Williams, who along with Absarokee Fire Chief Amanda Ferster and firefighters from Absarokee and Columbus, conducted most of the initial damage assessments in that area.

WHAT NOW

Bridges primary concern is road restoration. Specifically, when it will be done and if he will be consulted when the time comes. Bridges knows that big work trucks will need room to turn around. Having already lost must of his hayfield, Bridges is concerned about working with crews to prevent further property loss.

But his concerns, he says, are going largely unheard.

Sitting at his kitchen table last week, U.S. Representative Matt Rosendale’s office called Bridges to say an engineer would be coming out soon. But the question of whether Bridges will even be notified or consulted went unanswered.

In addition to property loss, private roads and bridges have been destroyed. Fencing, in particular, is incredibly expensive — currently running $10,000 per mile, according to Dirk Pelton.

Stanley Pelton said he understands how the enormity of the flood would have overwhelmed local officials and graciously he is sympathetic. But it does not take away from the hardship he and other ranchers are enduring and the fear they have for their own futures.

“The mental anguish of it…,” said Stanley, pausing to compose himself.

For the Ekwortzels, the couple knows how long it will take and how much it will be to clean up the damage, and say the Fall will likely expose new problems.

“This will cost us out of pocket a months work with machinery and hiring $100,000 of equipment work to get fixed.  This is roughly 3/4’s of a mile washed out fences and all,” said Shari Ekwortzel. “(The) problem is….the damage for most places can’t be seen until later Fall after the rivers went down. Then comes the scary part if they’re even going to let us fix it and put the river back where it was. Every single bit of the damage to the Stillwater will have a back and forth bouncing affect to each bank of river on everybody’s property that was affected. So if you think you’re lucky and (don’t) have damage, future run-offs might prove different.”

ON-GOING DAMAGE

Alarmingly, the Stillwater River is not done with its damage. The river’s new channels continue to erode banks in multiple locations and threaten many homes — including Bridges, as well as three in the Circle T Subdivision in Absarokee.

The continued damage was touched on during a recent meeting with the Sibanye-Stillwater mining company and local/state/federal agencies as continued soil erosion is also taking place where Highway 419 was destroyed by floodwaters directly in front of the mine.

Wanda Wilcox is awaiting approval for riprap to secure the riverbank on Stillwater River Road to keep continuing soil erosion from endangering a guesthouse on her property, Paintbrush Adventures.

Wilcox was rescued from her flood-surrounded home in the early morning hours by neighbor Dirk Pelton, who arrived in a large tractor.

Keeping her business running while trying to get local, state or federal help has been challenging. Wilcox says all government offices are promising but they aren’t coming through yet. Wilcox also wonders how properties are prioritized.

RIVERFRONT PROPERTY IN ABSAROKEE

Patty and Scott Evans lost approximately 60-feet of property along a 350-feet stretch along Rosebud Creek near the Grove Street Bridge in Absarokee. On that property was a garage, a lawn mower, an ATV and other items.

And like in other locations, soil erosion is continuing.

Patty — who friends describe as intelligent, computer savvy and someone who knows how to make people listen to her — jumped on the FEMA resources and other help right away. She worked with Sharon Flemetis with the Stillwater Conservation District and got qualified for the Emergency Watershed Protection program.

Now the Evans are waiting on the various agencies to find out exactly what specifications they will have to follow in making repairs and securing the riverbank. At this point, the couple has no idea what that will cost.

“We are two months into this and we don’t have an answer,” said Patty.

She also feels that FEMA was not forthcoming on what was going to be involved if you received any federal money — namely, the requirement that the resident carry flood insurance permanently.

For Scott, he is bothered by people who are doing repair work without the approval of any required agency. Not only is that no right, Scott said such repairs can cause problems for people downstream.

Ekwortzel is also not a fan of FEMA.

“FEMA has proven itself to be nothing more than trying to loan those with damage money from the taxes we’ve paid in,” said Ekwortzel. “You stop in and they tell you a 2.9 percent ‘business loan’ for land damage and a 1.9 percent if you lost your home. They have nice signs and are nice people but are nothing more than a lending agency.”

DEBRIS

Nearly two months removed from the initial flood, debris remains throughout the river and on the land.

In the river itself are power lines, propane tanks, the actual foundation of a house, household belongings, downed trees, fencing and more. On land are piles of the same.

Those piles are likely to remain where they are until it can be determined who is responsible for cleaning up what.

The actual waterway falls under the jurisdiction of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. That agency’s standard approach is to not move objects in rivers and let nature take its course. What will happen on the Stillwater is still unknown and something that the commissioners say they are working on with FWP.

In addition to safety issues, of debris in the river,  any kind of cleanup is going to be expensive. Commissioners Tyrel Hamilton and Riveland say they are working with multiple agencies as quickly as possible to have such matters determined.

And as for the ag community being forgotten in the flooding, Hamilton agrees.

“I share their frustration,” says Hamilton.