Winter takes toll on northeastern Montana wildlife

Pronghorn and mule deer hit hard-

Winter takes a toll on northeastern Montana wildlife. By Brett French. Billings Gazette.

I posted a news release from ID Fish and Game the other day about winter conditions and wildlife in Eastern Idaho, but hardly anyone read it.  I took it down. I’ll watch this one to see if there is a true lack of  interest in the subject.






  1. Mtn Mama Avatar
    Mtn Mama

    The article mentions that birds of prey are eating on the carcasses, any wolf packs in that area that might benefit? Or Grizzly in the spring?
    What about the fences that were mentioned in the article? Are they on public land and could they be removed? I know that the Buffalo Field Campaign did a big fence removal project on public lands last winter. They inspired me and so I organized 2 fence removal service projects for public lands in 2010 (one at a city level and one at a county level).
    The herd being hit by a train is tragic and I imagine it would be an emotional event to witness with over 200 animals dead.

    1. Elk275 Avatar

      Mtn Mama

      Northeast Montana is mostly private land and was homesteaded in the early 1990’s as wheat farms. In the extreme northeast it is all private and state land with no federal lands. There are no grizzlies or wolves in that part of the state.

      I have lived in Montana all my life and have never been to the northeast section of the state. If my business does not improve shortly, I am going to have to work as a landman again and it is either there or North Dakota.

      1. Elk275 Avatar


    2. Ralph Maughan Avatar

      Elk275 is right. Wolves have gotten near to NE Montana coming both from Minnesota and from the Western Montana/Yellowstone.

      That is an important fact because it shows how much wolves will migrate. In my mind, this observed migration makes the development of a separate “Canadian wolf” an impossible creature.

  2. Mtn Mama Avatar
    Mtn Mama

    I posted a story in “have you come across” about how the heavy snow in Southern Colorado is affecting Elk migration. The Division of Wildlife is putting out hay for the herds specifically to divert them from cattle grazing areas. My post didnt garner much attention either.

    1. wolf moderate Avatar
      wolf moderate

      I like to think of wildlife as wild. It’s not that it doesn’t interest, just sad really. Feeding elk and radio collared wolves doesn’t cut it.

      W/ the limited amount of winter range it is a necessity I guess. And radio collars do help get valuable data about wolf and prey behaviors, but still pretty lame.

      1. Nancy Avatar

        +I like to think of wildlife as wild. It’s not that it doesn’t interest, just sad really. Feeding elk and radio collared wolves doesn’t cut it+

        Wolf Moderate – I like to think of wildlfe as maybe just needing a helping hand every once in awhile when winters are really tough, especially when you take into consideration how mankind has taken over much of their habitat.

        I have not seen a winter like this (southwest Montana) in years. Got over 2 feet of snow around my place. Sure its well over 10 feet in the higher elevations just a few short miles from my place.

        Interesting how modern technology can call in the forces, when abuses become obvious regarding mankind’s shortcomings:
        yet their website is up and running and asking for donations while these abused animals are being sorted out:

        Ralph, didn’t see that post but it was not unlike another post you had up regarding solar and other possibilities. PW and a few others chimed in and then it disappeared off the site………

      2. Save bears Avatar


        You only have 2 feet! Yikes, that is a summer time walk, I measured this morning and I have 73 inches on the ground and we are walking through high sided trails to get to the car!…the wildlife is staring to show extreme stress right now, I watched a mt lion yesterday for about an hour running around a field trying to catch crows that were feeding on a downed deer..comical to watch, but heart wrenching, this cat was quite skinny..

      3. JEFF E Avatar
        JEFF E

        so why didnt the cat eat the deer

      4. Save bears Avatar

        Jeff if you are familiar with Mt. Lions, there are some that will not eat downed animals..some will..I have observed cats in WA, that will eat just about anything, here in Montana, I rarely have seen cats eat something they didn’t kill, guess it is just one of the personality things with cats.

      5. JEFF E Avatar
        JEFF E

        Just asking. If it was me………. and i was starving , i sure as hell would not be chasing around a crow when a deer was laying there, already dead. of course that is just my training. a starving Mt lion likely saw it different……………..

  3. Rita K.Sharpe Avatar
    Rita K.Sharpe

    Ralph and Mtn Mama,I do read your posts and I thank you for doing so. I just do not comment very often.

  4. Virginia Avatar

    Ralph – please don’t think because there aren’t comments that people aren’t reading your posts. I read every article you post, but, as Rita says, I don’t always comment. I can’t always find an interesting way to comment, so often I decide just to keep it to myself. But – as I said, I read everything posted here!

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar


      I know most people just read and don’t comment. That’s just fine. WordPress gives us the exact count how many people click on an article.

      1. JEFF E Avatar
        JEFF E

        but ralph, I click multiple times

  5. adam gall Avatar
    adam gall

    Ralph, I would be one of those who reads but I don’t care to participate in the commenting, except when I am really compelled. I would certainly be interested in any posts pertaining to winter conditions and the resulting effects on wildlife. I think weather/climate is just as important as other issues (predation, encroachment, etc.) Thank you.

  6. Save bears Avatar


    I read all of the stories that get posted here, some I will make a comment on, but I do read them and often times will research them a bit father to get a better handle on that particular issue.

    1. Elk275 Avatar


      I did not read the above story on the blog. I read it this morning in the Billings, Montana. The picture of that antelope bury to it’s nose in the snow looks good to a “powder hound” and those who’s church is of “the steep and deep” but that poor antelope. I wonder what spring will bring, winter has become very long.

      1. Elk275 Avatar

        Billings Gazette

      2. Connie Avatar

        I know, I know . . . it’s not what we’re supposed to do, but I would have grabbed a shovel. That photo was heart-wrenching.

  7. wolfsong Avatar

    I know this goes against all of the rules, but would FEEDING them really have that severe of an effect? I know they are feeding in S. Colorado, why not here? I do know that interference is not always good, but why let them starve to death?

    1. Save bears Avatar

      Well, the many that seem to want nature to takes its course, the northeastern part of Montana is probably one of the areas that is least touched by man, if we continue to feed, then we are again interfering, a certain number of animals are going to starve to death in hard winter years, and people need to understand that..

      I have no desire to see anything starve to death, but it if it an act of nature, I really don’t think feeding them is the best solution.

      1. wolfsong Avatar

        I understand that starvation is part of nature. But if we were truly “hands off” then would there not be a far greater number of predators to control the population? If we continue eliminating the predators, we are falsely inflating herds which leaves less grass to prepare them for winter, leading to more starvation.. Kind of an endless circle, eh?

      2. Mark Gamblin (IDFG) Avatar
        Mark Gamblin (IDFG)

        Wolfsong –
        “if we were truly “hands off” then would there not be a far greater number of predators to control the population? If we continue eliminating the predators, we are falsely inflating herds which leaves less grass to prepare them for winter, leading to more starvation..”
        It would be very unusual that under traditional management objectives – for hunting, wildlife watching, agricultural depredation control, etc. – a managed population of deer, elk or other species would be at risk of achieving a high enough density to endanger it’s habitat range.
        Which begs the question – why would ours or any society prefer/choose a “hands off” system of wildlife management?

    2. Mark Gamblin (IDFG) Avatar
      Mark Gamblin (IDFG)

      wolfsong –
      Winter feeding is a serious topic for wildlife management agencies, especially mine. We have a very specific emergency winter feeding policy and program that is designed to use winter feeding as a case of last resort – to be employed when there is a compelling need to conserve the core reproductive portion of a deer (mule deer) population. Winter feeding is one of those topics that generates much passion and interest from the public for obvious reasons. The image of “starving” deer is a powerful motivation for many public observers. All western states, including Colorado, have winter feeding policies that are guided by the biological and metabolic demands that winter puts on wintering deer herds every winter. In short, deer rely very heavily on the fat reserves they bring with them to their winter range. It is their body condition more than winter range forage or other food sources, that determines whether a deer will survive a given winter. Body size, body condition (fat reserves and overall health), sex, and most importantly age – are more important factors that determine winter survival rates for a wintering population. Fawns suffer by far the highest mortality rates because of their small size (Bergman’s rule is operating here) and fat reserves. Of course the severity of winter conditions is very important also. Snow depth is important, not because it covers forage, but because deer expend energy moving through deep snow. Prolonged, deep cold is very imortant because of the energy demands it places on animals, forcing them to burn limited fat reserves. Metabolically, deer are in a somewhat dormant condition during the winter. The bacterial fauna or their gut and enzyme system has shifted to allow them to more effeciently use the course browse that is typically avaiable on winter range. This makes hay and other high energy food material difficult or impossible to digest. It is not unusal to find deer dead around hay stacks in the middle of winter, with guts packed with hay. Every winter a percentage of the deer population will die, regardless of the severity of the winter or general condition of the deer herd. When we feed we only do so to protect the core reproductive portion of the herd – mature, productive does. Feeding under other, less dire circumstances creates problems and does very little good for the wintering deer population. Mature does are much more resilient, mature bucks even more so. Elk are almost bullet-proof from winter mortality, moose even more so. Colorado, like Idaho, feeds only when they conclude that they must to save a portion of the reproductive potion of a wintering herd. IDFG also uses feed when necessary to bait wintering animals (deer, elk or antelope) away from hay stacks or other agricultural depredation problems (we also frequently issue kill permits or conduct depredation hunts to control those problems) or to minimize road or railroad mortality and public safety risks.

      1. Bob Avatar

        I think back to one of Creel’s studies about the body condition of Yellowstone elk. Wolves changed the feeding habits resulting in poor body fat.

      2. Jerry Black Avatar
        Jerry Black

        Mark Gamblin..”The bacterial fauna or their gut and enzyme system has shifted to allow them to more effeciently use the course browse that is typically avaiable on winter range. This makes hay and other high energy food material difficult or impossible to digest.
        Question, Mark…………under those circumstances, what type of supplemental feed do you use?

      3. wolfsong Avatar

        Mark – Thanks for the info, helps fill in the gaps I had on what policies applied. I was aware of the hay/gut issues from the winter of 2007-2008 in Colorado, many people were trying to donate hay but it was unsuitable for feeding the Mule Deer.

    3. Mark Gamblin (IDFG) Avatar
      Mark Gamblin (IDFG)

      Jerry –
      We use a specially formulated feed, designed for the metabolism of wintering deer. This feed was developed through research, I believe in Utah, and is produced under state contract by a feed company in Idaho.

      1. Jerry Black Avatar
        Jerry Black

        Thanks Mark
        Do most ungulate’s digestive systems, or at least those that inhabit northern latitudes, react in the same manner?
        Just wondering about the Wyoming feed program for elk and what they feed them. I was under the impression it was hay.

      2. Mark Gamblin (IDFG) Avatar
        Mark Gamblin (IDFG)

        Jerry –
        This metabolic “strategy” that deer have evolved to survive harsh winters, compensates for their relatively short digestive tract – compared to larger ungulates like elk, moose, bison. With a much longer digestive tract, elk can process much coarser forage, lower in nutritional density, and gain weight through the winter. Deer simply don’t have the digestive processing capacity to take similar advantage of the course browse predominantly avialable to them on winter range habitat. Western states that I am familiar with use the same winter feed formulation or other specialized feeds to accomodate the winter nutritional needs of deer. For these reasons, elk will thrive on hay during the winter, but deer will founder after their digestive system has made the metabolic shift to a winter diet.

      3. Jerry Black Avatar
        Jerry Black

        Mark Gamblin……thanks again for “ungulate digestive systems 101”
        I was fortunate today to watch deer in my front yard finishing off my service berry bushes and elk in the hills behind my house pawing the snow to get down to the grasses.

  8. Nancy Avatar

    SB – Years past, I’ve cursed those fricken little cottentails who’ve raided my flower garden, got my dogs in a tissy and munched my trees down. This year? I’m tossing out packaged rabbit food hoping they will make it thru the winter.

    And those grey partridges? Their numbers are a fraction of what they were a couple of months ago, and they are still hanging around. Hawks and eagles (and who knows what else, come nightime) have taken their toll.

    20 below zero temps predicted for tonight and I guess I should feel grateful, heard it was 50 below zero in Havre last night?

    1. Save bears Avatar

      We were at 13 below this morning…the car protested a whole bunch when I started it up, I have a friend that lives not to far from Havre and with the wind chill he was saying it as in the -60 below range! To damn cold for me!

  9. Elk275 Avatar

    ++We were at 13 below this morning, he was saying it as in the -60 below range! To damn cold for me!++

    Your a sissy Save Bears. Thirty six years ago (where has time gone), I broke the tract on my arctic track vehicle 20 miles from camp, which was located between Point Lay and Point Hope, Alaska. It was 55 below with a 30 to 40 mile an hour wind from the west. The wind chill was off of the chart at -148. It took over 12 hours to repair something that could have been repaired in 15 to 20 minutes in summer. Tools broke, the come along cable broke, bolts broke, everything was broke but we got her fixed and back to camp.

    I miss those days. Days when the only color on the tundra was black, ravens hunting lemmings, if we were lucky maybe a wolverine or a caribou.

    It is to cold for me too. I wish that I was in Northwest Argentina, at a La Pradilla eating lamb and drinking Malbec the shadow of the Andes, not this winter. I am a sissy now, too.

    1. Save bears Avatar

      Yes Elk,

      I am a sissy and am damn proud of it at this point in my life!


    2. JB Avatar

      We had our second ice storm in as many nights last night. I spent most of the night awake listening to the branches of my white pine snap and crash into the roof. Fortunately, the gutters and roof survived; but the power is out and I lost about 1/3 of the canopy of my second favorite tree. Also lost an ornamental that was crushed by one of the pine branches. Almost makes me miss Minnesota…almost. 😉

  10. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    Our winter has been fairly mild, except for a couple of extended cold, clear periods of Taku winds whistling out of Canadan and off the ice fields so strong they blew out a lot of car windows and some on houses — but that’s not really much out of the ordinary. Otherwise, we have minimal snow and are cycling back to rain. The deer are doing very well this year but we have had some major snow winters recently, the worst being 2006-2007 when we got a record of just over 200 inches of snow. There was so much by spring that year that the deer formed actual tunnels in places getting to the beach and looked tiny standing there with a cliff of snow behind them. In this area, habitat management is key to deer and goats surviving winters — basically refraining from clear-cutting old growth. The immense crowns on 400-500 year old spruce intercept and hold all that snow and leave actual uncovered understory with forbes and shrubs for deer to eat (which is rich in mixed-age stands that allow ample light penetration to the forest floor). They just feed under one tree for a while and then hop over a berm several feet high to the shelter of another immense crown. High volume old growth is key to goat survival as well.

    It looks from the photo like those poor animals could use some wind to move the snow off. Wind is really key to dall sheep survival and distribution. Many mountain ranges that appear to be beautiful sheep habitat have none. The whole north slope of the Brooks Range is loaded with sheep because its windy in the winter — they can survive tremendous cold as long as they can get out on those wind-blown slopes and eat — but they are more spotty on the south side in windy pockets. In the central Alaska Range, there are lots of sheep on the north side but virtually none on the south side.

    As far as railroad kills, I remember the Alaska railroad used to kill incredible numbers of moose. I haven’t heard so much lately and wonder if they have come up with some method, other than just running them over.

  11. Cody Coyote Avatar
    Cody Coyote

    Having lived in northwest Wyoming all my life, 60 years, or as the old chiefs would say , ” Man winters” , this current winter is much closer to the norm we had growing up. The winters have been much milder for the past 20 years than the 20 yeas before that , and before that.

    Our family lore includes the tale of my twin cousins being born in the front seat of the truck during the Blizzard of ’49 My uncle was driving my aunt to town in labor, and they ran off the road in the wee hours. Calving started early for Uncle Bill and Aunt Jeannie that year.

    It was 20 below in Cody this morning. Still, we have not had a lingering Arctic cold spell in many years like I recall from my youth…the 40 and 50 below zero stuff, where it never got above zero for weeks on end. The last year I recall that was 1979.

    So I guess my question is” Now that we are having a genuine Oldtime Winter, what have wildlife managers learned in the intervening years, or not ? Do we know how to cope with heavy winterkill ?

    Myself, I’m glad to see it again. I’m glad I’m not a rancher, however, or have a hugely pregnant wife 25 miles from town. This more normal winter will mitigate the Pine Beetles, hopefully, and give wolves plenty of fresh carcasses in the late winter ( by the way , I agree that Cougars seldom eat what they dont kill. Cats like warm fresh meat. They aren’t scavengers unless starving). The snowpacks look fabulous, so far. My local ski area is having a vintage year…it got more snow by the end of December than it did all last year.

    here’s my thought fr the da about this winter. We just had an unusual thing happen here in the Cody WY area. We had an extended Elk hunt. The entire month of January was open to Cow elk in the Cody-Meeteetse area. It was an attrition hunt, driven exclusively by the hue and cry to do something about the three cases of brucellosis that turned up in recent months in cattle and one domestic Bison herd near Meeteetse on the Greybull River. So Game & Fish agreed to hammer the migratory elk coming in , since the brucellosis s almost surely originating inside Yellwostone Park ,and those elk come all the way out over the Absarokas to winter, by the many thousands.

    Tha attrition hunt concluded yesterday Too soon t know how many additional elk were taken or f the cattle barons feel they accomplshed anything.

    Which brings me to the annual Aerial Census of elk. Those counts usually begin about now and take a couple months to complete. The three main herds in the Cody region —Clarks Fork, Cody ( Shoshone Rivers) and Gooseberry ( Greybull-Wood Rivers-Gooseberry area) herds are all WELL above population objectives going into this winter, by several thousand animals.

    I would hope that Wyo Game and Fish could find the money and manpower to do TWO aerial Elk counts this year…one beginning now, and another at the end of winter three months from now just before the return migration. The objective would be to baseline the population afer this attrition hunt, and further gauge the winterkill. Gross vs. Net after winter has taken its toll.

    My opinion is the local outfitter and hunting rabble will make a claim that our several wolf packs hereabouts will have a ” multiplier” effect on the winterkill of Elk. They will claim the wolves exacerbated the natural elk kill above and beyond the mortality of winter alone.. And of course that provides an excuse to hammer wolves with extreme prejudice.

    My own thinking is the wolves will be opportunists in every way , taking the weak elk earlier and feeding mightily on carcasses that die on their own later on ; that the net result of wolf predation on Cody region elk will be nearly the same as it would have been anyway. To my mind, the wolves taking the weak elk and feeding on winterkill carcasses—along wit all the other predators and carnivores out there—is a very positive, if grim, actuality. We’ve needed just that kind of adjustment to our northwest Wyoming elk herds for 20 years now, since the droughts of the late 80’s.

    Hunters, of course, will disagree. Those are ” their” elk. Yeah , right.

    So I hope Game & Fish has the means to accurately gauge this winter’s elk population , accounting for both the attrition hunt and the higher than normal winterkill if this weather continues…
    … becuase in the back of my mind is the much ballyhooed story a month ago of the drastic drop in the elk population in northern Yellowstone…24 percent in a single year. Wolves are getting the biggest share of the ‘ blame’ for that. I feel that is unjustified. For two reasons

    First , the Yellowstone elk count was done early . It was done when the elk were still in the trees . I think the count is low , structurally. It’s not a reliable census, but is being treated as gospel anyway. It would have been better if that YNP Northern Herd aerial count would have been done more conclusively and at a slightly later date. Seems to me it was ‘ rushed’ and a little shallow.

    Bottom Line: what can we learn from this winter’s toll ? Since wolves were reintroduced, there has only been a couple of winters that even approach the carcass-dropping ecological magnitude of this one, and it’s not even Groundhog’s Day yet…

    1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
      SEAK Mossback

      That brings back memories of a morning drive road through the Lamar on what I believe was the all-time coldest day recorded in Yellowstone— it may have been 1979 because I was visiting and drove my mother’s little Subaru wagon that was a mid to late 70s model. It was only about 25 below in Mammoth but I completely blocked the radiator with cardboard before setting out, which made it tolerable. I seem to remember the temperature in Cooke City being minus 56 and heard later something like minus 63 degrees at the Buffalo Ranch. It was a beautiful winter morning and elk numbers were quite high — it was sobering to look out and see them and the other animals enduring such cold.

      I agree the wolf predation this winter, or probably any late hunting, is unlikely to be a problem and is probably a help. The horrendous winter of 1968-1969 killed off most of the moose around Fairbanks, and a legislator (Red Swanson) pushed for a late cow hunt while it was going on. It’s funny, even today many hunters there have an almost religious opposition to cow-calf hunting and blame the whole crash on “Red Swanson’s cow hunt”. The problem was that there were far too many moose so those that were shot or predated were only a positive effect by helping others to survive, but the winter overall just did what was due. It was the culmination of a monster cycle that started in the 1950s with the feds perfecting wolf control and applying it broadly with everything they had. The moose population got very large and continued to grow through most of the 1960s, but there was a complete switching of the guard at statehood with a whole crop of freshly graduated biologists from despoiled southern habitats that had read Aldo Leopold. Wolf control was halted and wolf numbers had 8 years of mild winters to grow into the huge moose population before the hammer came down on the entire system. Even though it is an area that tends toward higher predator-prey equilibrium because grizzlies are very scarce in the main moose calving area, the population just didn’t come back. When I was taking flying lessons over the Tanana Flats in the late 70s, moose were far and few. Things somehow got out of kilter from the huge cycle and crash. Maybe the browse had been so hammered that moose weren’t able to respond as they normally would. Maybe the wolves found other food (hares reached a peak during that period) and didn’t follow the moose down proportionately. Calf survival finally improved markedly following a short period of predator control in the early 1980s and both moose and wolves have been abundant ever since. In fact, there have been concerns at times that moose were getting too abundant again based on low twinning rates and condition. But there is strong public pressure against logical remedies such as allowing more cow-calf harvest and managing wolf trapping.

      Basically, it seems to be human nature to want to push the upside of cycles for all they’re worth, whether biological or economic, never quite grasping that we inevitably shorten the good times and make the bad ones much worse and more frequent. When the good times are rolling we want to keep the peddle to the floor (cut taxes, lower interest rates, cut standards and regulations and leverage up) and after the crash and the tears and lost ground we still push for policies and vote for people that are fixated on and know nothing but pushing the upside of a cycle.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox