By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor
BIG SKY – Although a winter storm watch was in effect for southwest Montana at EBS press time on March 29, the majority of the month brought unseasonably warm temperatures. The March weather triggered rapid snowmelt and a deteriorating snowpack, but members of the Big Sky business community remained optimistic.
Operations that rely on snow, such as Lone Mountain Ranch, felt the effects of little snowfall and warm temps the most, but many business owners and managers interviewed by EBS generally maintained a positive, adaptive attitude.
“We’ve clearly been losing snow faster than normal,” said Denise Wade, director of guest operations at Lone Mountain Ranch. “But skiing up high has still been great. The impression is that since the golf course [trails are] not open any more that there’s no good skiing, but there is.”
Despite selling fewer trail passes and lessons, Lone Mountain Ranch is booked with lodging guests through April 15—ski vacations are typically reserved far in advance and rarely cancelled—and aims to continue grooming their trail system until April 7, or longer if there is ample snowfall.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Gallatin River was running 506 cubic feet per second March 29, just 6 percent shy of its 86-year maximum flow for the same date. Though surrounding watersheds such as the Madison and Upper Yellowstone were sitting above 100 percent of average, the Gallatin held 91 percent of its snow water equivalent average on March 29.
Snowfall totals for Big Sky Resort, as reported by On the Snow, cited a March accumulation of 30 inches at press time on the morning of March 29, compared to 70 inches in the same period last year.
Chelsi Moy, Big Sky Resort public relations manager, did not have precise skier counts but said that the resort hasn’t seen a decline in those numbers.
Ski conditions were spring-like, Moy said on March 23, but pointed to Big Sky’s historically snowy late March and early April. “There’s snow in the forecast, so I’m still optimistic.”
Moy did confirm an increase in zipline tour business, likely due to warmer conditions.
The Big Sky Chamber of Commerce corroborated a spike in interest in recreational activities other than skiing, and an increase in the number of tourists stopping at the visitor center for recreation ideas in the region.
“The skiing has been slushy and icy because of the weather, so we’re getting a lot of people asking about fly fishing,” said Visitor Services Liaison Kristina DeVries on March 23.
DeVries sends tourists inquiring about fly-fishing to the shops and outfitters along Highway 191.
“What’s bad news for the skiers is good news for the fisherman,” said J.D. Bingman, owner of Wild Trout Outfitters since 1988. Like Andrew Schreiner, owner of Grizzly Outfitters, who has seen ski sales slow and bike sales pick up with the spring-like weather, Bingman has seen an influx of early fly-fishing business.
“If given the choice I would rather winter continue and save our spring melt for when it’s supposed to happen,” said Bingman, a Big Sky resident since 1973 who has been around the wheel of seasons here enough to take the long view.
He said if one is looking back 30 or 40 years, the warm March temperatures are not normal. “But on the short term is this unusual? I don’t think so.” he said.
Bingman also knows winter isn’t over until it’s over and said he wouldn’t be surprised if Big Sky received another 2 to 3 feet of snow before winter takes its leave.
“It’s a little too soon to panic,” he said. “Anytime between now and April 15, winter can come back with a vengeance. Just take your snow tires off and see what happens.”
In the food and beverage arena, both the owners of By Word of Mouth (BYWOM) and Alberto’s Mexican Cuisine, said their local business keeps them steady even when the snow isn’t falling.
“We get a lot of local people who are here no matter what, so we don’t feel it too much,” said BYWOM owner Pam Flach. She’s run the restaurant for 20 years and will keep BYWOM open for lunch and dinner through the offseason. She was surprised by how busy the last week of March had begun, despite the lack of snow.
“The resort does a good job of drawing people to Big Sky even when snow conditions aren’t ideal,” she said.
Brenda Godoy, co-owner of Alberto’s Mexican Cuisine, now in their third winter, said the first week of March was great, but as soon as the warmer weather hit, she noticed a slowdown in business.
“We’re still busier than offseason, but not as busy as it could’ve been if the snow was falling,” Godoy said.
She did say that snow or no snow, happy hour is always hopping and it’s mostly locals who keep it that way.
“If you have a good local base you might not kill it, but you’ll survive,” she said.
Senior Editor Amanda Eggert contributed to reporting for this story.