Harsh Winter Conditions Taking Their Toll on Montana Wildlife

Harsh Winter Conditions Taking Their Toll on Montana Wildlife
Large herds of antelope are congregating on railroad tracks across the Hi-Line and hundreds of the animals have been hit by trains.

pronghorn antelope using a paved highway to escape deep snow
This herd of pronghorn antelope in the Hinsdale area is using a paved highway to escape record-deep snow. (photo courtesy Montana FWP)
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

GLASGOW, Mont. –-(Ammoland.com)- Continued bouts of bitter Arctic air and record-breaking snowfall in many areas of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) Region 6 are taking their toll on wildlife, especially pronghorn antelope and deer.

With harsh winter conditions potentially continuing for weeks longer, FWP biologists are predicting substantial impacts to white-tailed deer, mule deer and antelope populations, which in some areas had reached near-record numbers in recent years.

In fact, many of these animals are starving already after more than two months of heavy snows and especially harsh winter weather. Elk numbers across the Hi-Line are not expected to see big declines, in part because these animals are larger and can battle deep snow a bit easier.

“The biggest impacts will probably occur to antelope since they are ill-equipped to deal with deep snow conditions,” said FWP Region 6 Wildlife Program Manager Mark Sullivan. “Antelope are traditional migrators, but human developments have blocked some key migration routes. The Milk River Valley itself presents many formidable obstacles, such as U.S. Highway 2, the railroad tracks and tightly spaced fences. Antelope stack up against these developments and are forced to try to survive in less-than-suitable winter range.”

Mule deer are another species that are typically more heavily impacted by winter, but they usually don’t have as much difficulty migrating to winter ranges, nor are their migrations as long. In most years, Sullivan said, whitetails are not as impacted by winter as they primarily occupy agricultural areas that offer more options for finding nutrition.

“However, this winter is taking a toll on them as well, and ranchers are starting to report dead deer in or near their haystacks,” Sullivan said.

High deer numbers in many Region 6 hunting districts allowed harvest quotas to be sharply increased over the past several years, and substantially more licenses and permits have been available to hunters.

Now state biologists say they’ll likely have to reduce the number of licenses and permits where deer and antelope have been most impacted by the harsh winter of 2010-11. How much these numbers will be adjusted depends on a variety of factors, including hunting harvest surveys from last fall and upcoming aerial surveys.

“Biologists will be flying deer surveys this April to determine what impact winter had on populations, and antelope surveys will be flown in early July,” Sullivan said. “Even though our big game regulations come out before these surveys are flown, license quotas can still be changed from what is shown in the regulations, based on what we find during our surveys.”

Many people wonder what they can do to help wildlife and ask why FWP isn’t feeding animals. While some people think FWP should feed wildlife that is starving, Sullivan explained that the agency cannot treat deer, elk and antelope like domesticated livestock.

“While it is difficult to watch wild animals suffer and die, weather and habitat have always determined whether wildlife populations expand or decline,” he said.

“Feeding wildlife typically causes more problems than it solves. Feeding will increase the number of animals in an area. That brings a greater chance of spreading disease, and it teaches wildlife to rely on humans for food. In addition, the ruminant bacteria in a deer and antelope’s stomach are specific to breaking down certain food types, such as sagebrush and other browse. Animals that are stressed and already starving often cannot adjust fast enough to a new food type if fed hay or alfalfa. They may eat whatever is in front of them but then die with full stomachs.”

The best thing the public can do is try not to bother wintering wildlife at all. Give antelope herds a wide berth if you are snowmobiling, and try not to push deer out of winter cover. If animals are moving away from you in these situations you’re contributing to their stress.

“Unfortunately, this is one of those times where the declines in populations are likely to be steep,” Sullivan said.

“Winters on the Hi-Line and in northeastern Montana have their own way of sorting wildlife numbers out. Wildlife populations typically run in cycles, and we’re now probably going to see a major downturn in some of our numbers of pronghorn antelope and deer.”

One especially troubling problem is that because these areas are free of snow, large herds of antelope are congregating on railroad tracks across the Hi-Line. Hundreds of the animals have been hit by trains in recent weeks. Others are in danger of getting hit by cars and trucks as they travel on or bed down along plowed highways and county roads. Where they are able, white-tailed and mule deer have moved to hay stacks and other agricultural feeding sites, all waiting for a break in the weather.

On the positive side, Sullivan noted that heavy precipitation last year led to abundant food and cover for wildlife across much of FWP Region 6. That means most deer, elk, antelope and upland game birds went into the winter in the best possible physical condition.