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It’s news most Bozeman-area skiers expected but few wanted.

Bridger Bowl Ski Area postponed its opening day this week, pushing the hopeful first day on the slopes with lifts running from Friday to Dec. 17.

A Monday night snowstorm dropped about 7 inches of snow at Bridger Bowl, Erin O’Connor, spokesperson for Bridger Bowl, said Tuesday. But the accumulation was not enough to make up for the below-average snowpack in southwest Montana to allow for safe operations at the nonprofit ski area.

Rocks, stumps and grass are not covered with enough snow to keep riders safe, she said. And the 19-inch base layer of snow at higher elevations is far below what the ski area wants before opening to pass-holding riders, O’Connor said.

Bridger Bowl Opening?

Grass and dirt poke out from beneath the snow at Bridger Bowl on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021.

Bridger Bowl Opening?

A snow machine blows snow near the base of Bridger Bowl on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021.

“That’s a least a foot or two less than we’d like,” O’Connor said of the ski area’s base layer. “It’s just, really, that it’s not safe, particularly on the lower part of the mountain.”

The ski area has blown artificial snow on the slopes for the past few days as temperatures hovered around freezing, O’Connor said.

But above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation — a continuation of this summer’s historic drought — have hampered the ski area’s ability to build a snow base at lower elevations. And not much change is in the forecast, said Matt Ludwig, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Great Falls.

Temperatures above freezing are expected Wednesday and Thursday before the region cools again through the weekend, Ludwig said.

But “not a whole lot of moisture” is expected as cooler weather moves through the region, and “that’s kind of the story really through the next week,” he said Tuesday.

O’Connor said she did not know ski area’s baseline indicators for opening to pass-holding riders. But the ski area plans to allow uphill travel for touring riders up until a couple days before it plans to open, when staff plan to do avalanche mitigation and prepare the mountain for pass-holder traffic.

Bridger Bowl plans to open its pass office, retail store, rental shop and snowsports office from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday — lifts will not be turning.

Bridger Bowl Opening?

Snow falls on the ski rental building at Bridger Bowl on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021.

Bridger Bowl Opening?

A sign cautions skiers that Bridger Bowl is still closed on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021.

Bridger Bowl is not alone in delaying its opening day this year. Showdown Montana in Neihart postponed its opening day to Dec. 17, and Whitefish Mountain Resort postponed its scheduled Tuesday opening to Thursday at the earliest.

Snowpack in the mountains around Bozeman is about 60% of normal, and it’s even worse farther north, Ludwig said. Meteorologists have observed a La Nina weather pattern this year, which typically brings cooler and wetter weather to Montana.

But if last year’s La Nina — and lack of snow — is any indicator, it’s unclear if the climate pattern will bring significant snowfall to the northern Rockies.

“Historically, in second year La Ninas we do better, but that’s far from a guarantee,” Ludwig said.

Early winter temperature and precipitation across Montana has so far paralleled the hot and dry conditions most of the state experienced this summer.

The state as a whole is still in moderate to exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a trend that has continued since the summer.

“It’s just so dry,” Ludwig said.

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Bret Hauff is the Chronicle’s city editor. He can be reached at bhauff@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2647.

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