Surviving the snow

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

A deer forages for food under the snow in a Lewistown yard

For some Central Montanans, February’s snowy start wasn’t hard to adjust to: Shovel the drive and head inside for a bowl of soup and a long read. Others, though, are having a harder time. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Wildlife Biologist Sonja Andersen pointed to game animals in particular. “Basically, snow can be pretty tough on game animals,” she said. “For instance, it makes travel difficult.” For species such as deer, even a little extra effort can be costly, according to Andersen. “Deer are already in a negative-energy state, so they need to save all of their energy for spring,” she said. Add to that that deer are selective foragers, or picky eaters, and deep snow becomes an issue. Andersen said snow is tough on elk for the same reason, although their longer legs make movement a little easier. One solution she’s seen is relatively simple: get away from the snow. “[Elk] migrate from high-elevation summer range to low-elevation winter range,” she said. “Animals will spend more time on south-facing slopes, or wind-facing slopes.” Not only is travel easier, forage is more accessible and could even be completely exposed. Unfortunately, Andersen added, deer and elk have found another alternative in the ag-rich region. “One thing that’s commonly found around here is when game animals are dealing with snow, they tend to find other sources of forage, like haystacks,” she said. Andersen clarified not all wildlife resorts to thieving. Antelope migrate long distances on their search for food. “The antelope we see around here have migrated down from Canada,” she explained. Others have adapted. Andersen gave sage grouse as an example. “Sage grouse are uniquely adapted to the sage brush,” she said. “In the winter time, they survive by eating the sage leaves that stick out of the snow.” Yet others don’t mind wintery weather, according to Andersen, especially moose. “Actually moose do really, really well in the cold,” she said. “They’re susceptible to a lot of tick infestations, so the colder it is, the more likely the ticks will die off.” Hopefully, with coats and some warm broth, humans can do well, too…minus the ticks.

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