Hunting - Region 6
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
One impact of the severe winter of 2010-11 in northeastern Montana will be reduced numbers of pronghorn antelope that can be pursued this fall in some Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) Region 6 hunting districts, state biologists say.
“The past winter ranked as one of the most severe on record and included an incredible nine feet of snow in the Glasgow area,” said FWP wildlife biologist Kelvin Johnson. “Severe winter conditions started in mid-November and extended through April in many areas. The hardest-hit big game species in Region 6 were pronghorn antelope, which have to migrate to survive when the snow gets too deep. Due to a wide variety of factors, many of them could not keep moving south to get out of the harsh weather and they simply died.”
An ongoing research study of pronghorn habitat selection and migration focused in FWP Region 6 and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan showed that last winter started a full month earlier than normal. Concurrently, many animals started to move south then to minimize exposure to extreme conditions.
“Traditional winter range located along the Milk River Valley was completely covered by snow, and very little forage was available,” Johnson said. “Antelope began relying on haystacks but they suffered high rates of mortality there, in part because they’re not adapted to digest that type of food. At least 200 pronghorn carcasses were found at one particular haystack alone.”
Johnson noted that the migrating pronghorn used county roads, highways and railroad tracks as travel corridors. Survey flights flown this spring confirmed that approximately 1,000 pronghorns were killed by trains in FWP Region 6. The animals often got crowded together on and along the tracks because they were unable to travel elsewhere in the deeply drifted snow.
Large herds of pronghorns also trekked across the frozen surface of Fort Peck Reservoir, and FWP Region 7 wildlife biologist Ashley Beyer said 2,500 to 3,000 of the animals are now stranded on the reservoir’s remote southern shoreline from the mouth of the Musselshell River east to Snow Creek. The animals are unable to get back to their traditional summering grounds now that the ice has melted. Johnson said many of these animals likely would have returned to Hunting Districts 670 and 630, which have experienced the most severe reductions in pronghorn numbers.
“Hundreds of antelope have also been observed stranded on the south side of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge near UL Bend during the past few weeks, and they’re trying to migrate across the reservoir,” added University of Calgary doctorial candidate Andrew Jakes, one of the leaders of the international study. “Collaborators were able to document interesting behaviors in these groups, and in the observed cases groups swam approximately one-third of the way across but then turned back around with only the lead does successfully making it to the north banks of the reservoir.”
“As the snow has melted, the carcasses of hundreds of pronghorn antelope that had been trying to winter along their traditional winter range along the Milk River Valley have appeared,” Johnson added. “Most of the local winter range that typically works for them was not available this year, and it is evident that the vast majority of animals that tried to stick it out died. It appears that if the antelope didn’t migrate far enough south to the Missouri River Breaks or across Fort Peck Reservoir, they didn’t make it.”
Johnson said these losses will have major impacts on how FWP manages antelope this year, and major reductions in pronghorn licenses should be expected in HDs 670 and 630 because populations must again be rebuilt. Final hunting quota numbers will be decided in coming weeks.
“Not all is lost, however,” Johnson said. “In 2010, we had some of the best habitat conditions ever recorded in the summer and fall, and our antelope went into winter in the best body conditions possible. For the pronghorn that survived the past winter and soon will be dropping their fawns, there should be plenty of good habitat to live in again this summer. The record snowfall and persistent spring rains have made forage abundant almost everywhere.”