This has not been a good winter for wildlife in the Bitterroot Valley.
The lingering hard-crusted snowpack on traditional wintering grounds has created challenges that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park’s Bitterroot-based biologist Rebecca Mowry is certain will lead some mortality for elk and deer.
“I’m expecting to see a decline in the elk population when I do my spring flights this year,” Mowry said. “I’m sure that we’re going to see some winter kill. They are definitely under stress right now.”
For some, the hard winter has led to them trying plants that aren’t normally part of their diet.
Mowry said there have been a couple of cases this winter of elk dying apparently after eating toxic ornamental plants in the Hamilton area.
The biologist believes the elk ate the same species of yew plants that killed numerous pronghorn antelope in Idaho earlier this winter.
“We haven’t been able to confirm that yet,” she said. “We know that they had eaten yew and they died pretty near the location where the yew bushes were planted. We have sent in a sample to the lab to get it tested.”
While there are a lot of different species of yew – including ones that are native to the area – Mowry said the toxic alkaloids in Japanese and English species are concentrated enough in the winter months to be deadly to wildlife.
Landowners concerned about the potential of their plants killing wildlife can either get rid of the vegetation or wrap it in burlap during the winter months.
Deer and elk can also be killed by eating too much hay or corn during the winter months.
“When they shift from high-quality feed in the summer to low-quality feed in the winter, it happens gradually,” Mowry said. “They have a very complex digestive system. It takes time for them to adjust.
“If they suddenly eat a lot of high-quality feed, their digestive systems can’t handle it,” she said. “It can be fatal.”
Mowry said she’s been told this is third coldest winter on record for the Bitterroot Valley.
For the most part, it’s a landowner’s responsibility to keep wildlife out haystacks and barns.
“I think there are a lot of people who think FWP can give them things and help them,” Mowry said. “In some cases, we can. In most cases of people with smaller properties, we can’t. That’s not what the program was designed for.”
“If you have a haystack for a couple of horses, it’s your job to protect it,” she said.
That can be done without much cost.
Mowry said the department recommends eight-foot-tall fencing made out a black mesh that can be purchased in rolls. Wire stock panels also work if they are leaned up against the hay.
“Deer and elk don’t seem to like to step through those panels to get to the hay,” she said.
People enjoying public and private lands can also do their part by keeping their distance from wildlife this time of year.
“It’s really a critical time for them right now,” Mowry said. “Expending any energy unnecessarily is something they don’t need to do right now.”