GREAT FALLS - Hundreds of pronghorn antelope and deer have been killed by trains in Montana this winter after herds gathered on tracks to escape deep snows, a state wildlife official says.
Mark Sullivan, of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, said that a train recently killed about 270 pronghorn antelope near Vandalia in northeastern Montana, and 18 deer were found dead on the tracks by a grain elevator near Chinook.
Many antelope not killed by the impact had be destroyed by Blaine County authorities.
"To hunt and shoot animals is just different than shooting wounded animals like that," Blaine County Undersheriff Pat Pyette told the Great Falls Tribune. "You're close to it. You can look into their eyes. We see a lot of things, but (the deputy) was sick to his stomach after that."
Sullivan said hundreds of animals have been hit on Montana's Hi-Line.
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"This is an exceptional winter on the Hi-Line," he said. "The numbers are getting close to 800 animals reported, and I'm sure there are a fair number of animals killed by trains that we don't know about."
Burlington Northern Santa Fe spokesman Gus Melonas said because of the deep snow, the company this year is working with state officials to track deer and antelope deaths. He said the company has always worked with Glacier National park to track the number of moose and bears killed by trains.
"The trains are designed to blow away the light snow, so to those animals it's clear ground for them," Melonas said. "Because of the weather, the animals migrated to the path of least resistance, and that's the railroad, unfortunately."
He said railroad truck drivers are called in to scare animals away from tracks when train operators spot a large herd. Also, he said, the company is trying not to leave grain and corn that might attract deer and antelope to the tracks.
The winter in general has been tough on wildlife, Sullivan said, and a prediction of a cold and snowy March has wildlife managers concerned.
"These animals have been fighting winter since November," he said. "How the spring is will have a lot to do with how many animals make it out alive."
Craig Miller, a biologist with the Bureau of Land Management, has tracked pronghorn migration for the last four years. He said he has lately spotted scattered groups of animals rather than the herds of hundreds he saw at the start of the winter.
"Perhaps they've broken into smaller groups, but I have a feeling that winter kill is going to be pretty high," he said.
Wildlife managers plan flights in April to count deer, and in July will count antelope when the animals return to summer feeding grounds. The number of hunting licenses will be set based on those numbers.
"I'm sure we'll be dropping our license numbers a fair amount so the animals can rebuild," Sullivan said.