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Montana biologists cautiously optimistic about big game winter survival
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Montana biologists cautiously optimistic about big game winter survival

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Herd of elk near Boulder

A herd of bull elk winter on a ranch near Boulder.

Montana’s generally mild winter was good for big game, although biologists caution that early spring could still stress animals.

Following two years of hard winters, including last year’s record cold snap in February and March, biologists documented greater mortality for deer, elk and antelope. Last year, major winter weather persisted through April, which caused greater stress and mortality for wildlife. This was especially true for younger animals and was reflected in low calf and spike counts.

“We can expect a reduced number of bulls in the spike and 2-year-old age class this fall,” said Butte area biologist Vanna Boccadori.

Surveys this year compared to last year are showing better wildlife survival in southwest Montana.

While biologists continue to conduct surveys including flights into the spring, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has not seen significant winter-kill in most parts of Region 3. Good survival has been observed for elk in the Gravelly and Madison ranges, pronghorn in the Madison Valley, bighorn sheep in the Taylor Hilgards, deer and elk south of Butte, and all species around Townsend, the agency said.

If temperatures continue to warm up through April, biologists expect most animals to survive. But a cold spring could still impact deer, elk and other big game animals looking to milder days for recovery.

A common thread FWP Wildlife Management Section Chief Quentin Kujala is hearing from staff across the state is recognition that it isn’t over yet — and that “winter” started early last fall so wildlife are at the end of the nutritional rope right now. An extended cold spring would certainly increase mortality, he said.

“Regions are generally confirming, ‘Pretty mild throughout with animals still vulnerable now at the end of winter and fat reserves,’” he said in an email.

Across southwest Montana, biologists were also expressing some cautious optimism.

“It is still ‘starving time,’” said Bozeman area biologist Julie Cunningham, noting that animals are waiting for vegetation to green up. “April will be key. Let’s hope for a nice one.”

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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State Reporter/Outdoors Reporter

Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

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