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Early Winter Indicators
Look Good for Elk and Deer


by Mike Thompson,
wildlife biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Seeley Swan Pathfinder
January 14, 1999

The superstitious among you should avert your gaze. Read no further if you wear lucky underwear to high school sports events. Lay down your Pathfinder and back slowly away if you fear anything but fear itself. Because the prediction you're about to read will surely jinx our weather patterns for the next four months:

This winter looks like it will be another good one for elk and deer.

I write these words at some risk of embarrassment, fully two weeks before you will read them in the newspaper, with snowflakes falling steadily outside my window. Hopefully, you're not up to your throat in snow and running out of firewood already.

But, even if winter takes a sharp turn for the worst, it has already provided elk and deer with one important advantage for survival. Winter came late to western Montana this year. This late arrival set events in motion that will pay dividends through April, regardless of what happens during the rest of this winter.

First, elk and deer enjoyed unobstructed access to all features of their winter habitats throughout November and December. Winter forage is most nutritious during the fall months, before prolonged periods of snow cover and plant dormancy cause grass leaves to wither. Elk and deer gain great advantage through winter when snow cover does not prevent animals from harvesting the winter range in late fall.

It means that pregnant females continued to maintain or build fat reserves that will be needed to sustain growing fetuses through mid-winter, when forage quality is always poor. It also means that last year's calves continued their vital skeletal growth throughout the fall, without interruption from weather-caused stress. And, it means that bull elk were granted a chance to recover some physical condition after the rigors of the rutting season, before the onset of harsh winter weather.

This late arrival of winter was a real bonus, like an inheritance from distant relatives. You may know it's out there, but you have to live your life as if you'll never see it. So, when the bonus arrives, it can be used to pay off debts, like those accrued by fasting mule deer bucks during the rut. Or, it can be invested for the future, in the form of fat on whitetail does. Either way, it can change the courses of lives.

In the winter of 1996-97, we witnessed how devastating winter can be when it arrives early, rather than late. When FWP surveyed elk and deer populations in early February 1997, these animals had already been deprived of good-quality winter forage for three months. Physiologically, they were ready for spring to arrive, but the season would not change for another two months. The hard winter of 1996-97 did not deal harsh blows with severely cold temperatures or blizzards. It was the sheer, stubborn, persistence of that winter that exacted its toll on wildlife populations. We're already assured (I hope) that this winter won't be as persistent as that winter of '97.

There are other, more subtle factors at play. When deep snow arrives early in winter or fall and remains on the ground for several weeks or months, it tends to develop layers of crust that elk and deer have difficulty moving through and pawing for food. Generally, the longer snow stays on the ground, the harder it gets as it thaws, freezes again, and is windblown into drifts.

This year, we had little or no persistent snow on the primary winter ranges through December. This means that the snow that arrives hereafter may remain easier to paw through for a longer time than normal. Remember the Christmas snowstorm in 1996? That three to four feet of snow would have been much less of a problem for wintering wildlife if a knee-deep crust wasn't already present beneath it.

Also, if we get a January thaw, it will be much more likely to melt through to the grass this year, instead of merely causing an old, dense snowpack to settle and freeze solid when the temperatures turn cold again. What factors could negate the benefits of this late-arriving winter, and make a fool out of your fearless prognosticator? Well, remember the arctic blast of sub-zero cold and dangerous wind that killed the Flathead cherry trees a few years back? A mid-winter event of such magnitude remains a possibility, and would consume some or all of the benefits gained by elk and deer from this winter's late arrival. An exceptionally late-arriving spring would also push some elk and deer beyond their limits, even under otherwise favorable winter conditions.

But, we're off to a great start. Let winter come. Elk and deer populations are ready with nearly every advantage Mother Nature can grant them this year.

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