Winter takes toll on northeastern Montana wildlife
GLASGOW — The doe antelope had dug its own grave.
Weakened by months of cold, its usual foods covered in snow, it lay in a 3-foot-deep depression in the snow. Only its head was visible as it warily watched a car stopped along a nearby road. It was too weak to stand and flee.
“It's just a symptom of the severity of the winter,” said Kelvin Johnson, a wildlife biologist for Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Glasgow. He said the doe would be lucky to live one more day.
It has been a grim winter for wildlife. Earlier, Johnson had to help shoot 50 antelope that were injured after a train ran into a portion of a herd gathered on the railroad tracks near Hinsdale. Another 220 antelope were killed in the initial impact, their bodies scattered for more than a mile and left to feed scavengers.
The antelope gather on the tracks because they are free of snow. Off the tracks, the snow can vary from 4 to 8 feet deep. To walk through it, the antelope move in single file, trading places breaking trail, much as flying geese trade leaders.
To feed, the antelope and deer have to paw through the snow. Johnson said the landscape would look like a crater-pocked moonscape to anyone flying over — hundreds of holes scraped into the ground as the wildlife seek food.
“Can you imagine having to paw seven times for a nibble?” Johnson said.
Across northeastern Montana, continuous snow and cold have left antelope weakened and dying. Whitetail deer swarm haystacks like flies on meat. Carcasses of dead antelope and deer litter the hillsides and valleys. Only the golden and bald eagles, magpies and crows are getting fat as they scavenge the animal corpses.
“It's difficult out there, and they've been doing it since November,” Johnson said.
Bad winters are common across the rolling prairie of northeastern Montana, only miles from the Canadian border. But this winter has been harsher than normal, with snow coming earlier and heavier.
“We're well on the way to having a record-breaking winter,” said Mark Sullivan, FWP's Glasgow-region wildlife manager. “It's tough on wildlife, no doubt.”
It will also be tough on hunters who are likely to see licenses reduced for antelope and mule deer.
“This has really been the land of plenty for mule deer,” Johnson said. “Everyone's been coming out here. Probably people need to make another plan this year. We are going to lose a lot of deer.”
As Johnson explains it, much of the mule deer fawn crop was lost in the winter of 2003-04 that set a record for snowfall — nearly 6 feet. Does that were weakened by the winter had few fawns.
“We're missing that age class that would be 6- or 7-year-olds now,” he said. “I'm quite confident we'll see a limited age-class coming out of this.”
The winter also kills bucks that have low fat reserves after the fall breeding season.
“So bucks and fawns are the most susceptible going into winter with low or no fat reserves,” Johnson said. “So we'll likely lose a lot of mature bucks.”
FWP warden Todd Anderson said he already has found dead mule deer so emaciated that no muscle remained along the backbone.
“I saw one buck that looked like it hurt to walk,” said warden Todd Tryan. “He couldn't even hold his head up.”
Antelope migrate south to avoid such winters, moving through the plains in herds as large as 400 to 500. But man-made obstacles, like fences, can halt their progress. Sometimes in winter they can walk over the top of fences buried in the snow.
The Glasgow area's resident antelope push south to the Missouri River, some crossing Fort Peck Reservoir atop the ice.
In the spring, they'll attempt to return, but fences may be a greater obstacle to movement after snow has melted. And after ice has broken up, antelope sometimes try to swim across the reservoir.
The antelope around Glasgow now are those that have migrated south from Canada, taking over grazing lands that the resident herds have already abandoned. Moving 100 to 200 miles in deep snow is no easy task. Fawns are typically the first to die. Counts from a difficult winter in 2008 showed the antelope numbers dipping 20 percent, with most of the dead being fawns, Johnson said.
“It shows that migration works,” he said, keeping alive breeding adults while sacrificing the young.
In Sheridan County, a haven for pheasant hunters, Fish, Wildlife and Parks has begun allowing landowners to feed birds, according to Sullivan, the wildlife manager. The department allows feeding when 90 percent of the natural occurring foods are unavailable. Landowners are reimbursed for mileage and feed costs.
“Quite frankly, birds can spring back really fast if the habitat conditions are good,” Sullivan said. “And we should see good habitat conditions this spring. They should have good nesting cover.”
With two more months of snow and cold ahead, the danger for wildlife is far from over.
“It's just one of those tough winters that we go through up here,” said Pat Gunderson, Glasgow's FWP supervisor. “But when you're not in the game of animal husbandry it's a little hard to sit back and watch.”
Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 657-1387.