By Bill Sniffin
The recent late September and early October snowstorms in Wyoming sure seemed like an anomaly.
In recent years, this time of the year was just about the best time you could imagine. The Aspens are turning and the days are warm. Hunters are usually complaining about the lack of snow, which would keep the elk higher up the mountainsides.
But not in 2013. And not in many places all over the region.
During a recent trip we witnessed a scene reminiscent of those images of the buffalo slaughters back in the 1860s. That was when professional shooters like Buffalo Bill Cody (hence, his nickname) killed thousands of bison and left the carcasses strewn along the prairie.
When we were driving through the Wyoming and South Dakota Black Hills, there, as far as the eye could see, were little black piles in the snow. These were dead cows that could not survive a driving rain followed by 30-plus inches of snow and 70 mph winds. Some reports say 100,000 cows died, which even if that is an exaggeration, what we saw indicated it could be true.
This reminds me of stories of Wyoming’s famous blizzard of 1949 when storms were so severe they closed the Union Pacific railroad for seven weeks.
Cattle losses totaled over 100,000 in that storm which hit in the first week of January. Over 206 flights by military aircraft were made over Wyoming and Nebraska dropping food for people and hay for animals.
Historian Phil Roberts of the University of Wyoming says the Wyoming blizzards of 1886-1887 may have been even worse. After two decades of mild winters, the storms were so bad and so many cattle died, an entire way of life disappeared. The era of the cattle baron running vast amounts of cattle on public land with no consideration for the weather came to an end.
That was then. This is now.
Back here in present day in Wyoming, our poor trees took a horrific beating from the recent storms.
First a wet heavy 7-inch snow then a heavy 12-inch snow and most recently, a heavy wet 4-inch snowfall. In my backyard, it was surprising how much damage that last one did as it finished off three of my formerly strong young trees.
Other areas around the state in Casper, Cheyenne, Sheridan, Worland and other places lost lots of trees, too.
Leslie Blythe in Casper with her husband Mark were up most of the night Oct. 3 brushing snow off their 29 young trees.
She works for Rocky Mountain Power and said the public was wonderful in the way they treated members of their repair crews out restoring power in the middle of the snowstorms.
I write this column a week in advance of publication so hopefully you are reading this during a balmy time of Indian summer. It will be about time!
Lander’s Jack States is an official spotter for the Weather Bureau and reported the 16 inches of snow he recorded in that second storm was the highest amount reported among Wyoming spotters. He recorded five inches of precipitation in September, far surpassing the 30-year average of one inch.
According to his stats, the past 12 months have been among the wettest in the last third of the century. March, April and May had 3.1 inches, 3.8 inches and 3.4 inches, which far surpassed the averages of 1.0, 1.8 and 2.0 recorded over the past 30 years.
States loves both history and statistics and shared an interesting story compiled by Lander Historian Tom Bell about some crazy temperatures that hit Sinks Canyon in 1898.
One of the nicest orchards in Wyoming is at the current Central Wyoming College field station there. Some 80 percent of the trees were lost during a unique period of up and down temperatures that struck that spring 115 years ago.
The thermometer hit 50 degrees on March 7 and then turned cold. On April 29, the mercury slipped to –29. Then five days later, it zoomed to 75 degrees. Three days later it dropped again to –29. Then it warmed up again to 76 degrees on April 26 but dropped to 26 two days later.
The trees gave up. Four-fifths of that orchard could not survive these amazing up-and-down temperature swings. Although it still is a functioning orchard, it never regained its legendary status.
So, the gist of this is that if you think our current crazy temperatures and weather patterns are unique, just check your history books.
Check out Bill Sniffin’s columns at www.billsniffin.com. He is a longtime Wyoming journalist from Lander who has written four books. His most recent book is “Wyoming’s 7 Greatest Natural Wonders” which is available at www.wyomingwonders.com.