Outdoor Moments: Winter weather tough on wildlife

Alan Charles


A turkey inspects the bumper of Alan Charles’ Chevrolet pickup truck in the Pine Hills. The harsh winter is hard on wildlife.

Outdoors Columnist

With two feet of snow on the ground, a month of February sub-zero days behind us, and March on the calendar, it is hard to imagine those first balmy days of autumn, with bull elk bugling in the meadows and thick-necked bucks rutting in the sage.

But March 15 marks the deadline for deer and elk hunters to apply for special permits. Now is the time to give that Blarney stone one last rub before submitting your application, either electronically, by mail or in person to any Fish, Wildlife, & Parks (FWP) office. Landowners submitting “Landowner Preference Permit Applications” can only submit those applications on paper, rather than electronically.

The other morning, I was working on my own permit application when my wife said, “Alan, come look at this!” I went to the window, looked out at the driveway, and saw the darnedest sight.

Four mature tom turkeys were clustered around the front of my pickup, tails fanned in full strut, gobbling and pecking and poking at their reflections in the flashy chrome bumper of my Silverado pickup.

It was a surreal scene, watching those gallinaceous troubadours rehearsing for their springtime mating ballet on an icy stage surrounded by five-foot snowdrifts. I was reminded of those silly car insurance ads on television that feature squirrels and moose causing damage to vehicles, and I wondered just how my own insurance agent was going to respond to my claims of a turkeydamaged bumper. Just in case, I took pictures!

This month-long siege of cold temperatures and deep snow may have us all acting a bit strange, but these conditions do bring some serious consequences to Montana’s wildlife, some of which we will not see until long after the snow melts and the first buttercup blooms.

Sometimes, the clue is simply a tuft of feathers on the wind, or a set of cottontail tracks going thump, thump, thump to nowhere, with the marks of horned owl wingtips framing the end of that rabbit’s road like a pair of feathered parentheses. Sometimes, tracks of trailing coyotes shadow the winding paths of deer and antelope shouldering their way through the deep drifts.

Magpies flittering over blood-stained snow in a buffalo berry thicket, a lone eagle perched silently on a yearling antelope’s carcass, a porcupine gnawing on the antlers of a snow-buried buck — these are all portraits that color our wintry wildlife landscape.

Tough winters in eastern Montana are nothing new. While livestock producers work to provide extra feed, water and shelter for their herds of domestic animals, wild creatures simply struggle to survive, day by day, and night by night.

As hunters, we humans most often think of the time of harvest as the dates of our hunting seasons. That is why we find ourselves completing license and permit applications in the spring and summer so that, if we are lucky enough to draw a license or permit, we can go hunting in the fall and try to harvest a deer or elk.

For wildlife, every day is potentially a day of harvest, and the only real question that matters is which end of that stick you are on.

Could be, those tom turkeys simply decided it was better to dance in the February snow and think about springtime mating season than to get all depressed about trying to survive yet another long, cold, gray winter day.

( Alan Charles writes every other Friday for the Star.)