It's been a difficult winter, with several weeks left, for people and wildlife alike in northern Montana.
Those who have been working out in the cold, tending newborn calves, keeping pipes flowing and our highways plowed have felt the brunt of it, but luckily they are able to move indoors at the end of the day. Unfortunately, this winter has proven downright deadly for wildlife.
Perhaps you've seen the gut-wrenching photographs: Pronghorn antelope are dying by the hundreds in the northern Great Plains, as deep snows blanket their food supplies and push them south in search of forage. But with some new science and technology, people are working together to make winter a bit less brutal for wildlife in years to come.
Compared with deer and elk, pronghorn are reluctant to raid haystacks, as their stomachs are poorly suited for digesting hay. Furthermore, their small hooves provide little support in deep snow. They need to reach areas with less snow cover where they can find sagebrush that protrudes above the snow, or scrape away snow to reach forbs underneath.
This search brings many onto cleared places like highways and railroad tracks, where trains have killed several hundred pronghorn already this winter. Unfortunately, railroad engineers cannot always stop their heavy trains in time to avoid such collisions.
Unique to North America and uncannily adapted to their wide-open habitat, pronghorn are one of the fastest runners on Earth. However, obstacles like wildlife-unfriendly fencing can spell big trouble, especially in winters like this one where herds of hundreds may be blocked behind fences. Even if pronghorn do eventually make it through the fence, they can waste precious energy searching for a break.
World Wildlife Fund, the Bureau of Land Management and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks are working in an international partnership with the University of Calgary and provincial wildlife managers, to learn more about how pronghorn are moving through prairie landscapes.
For example, recent remote-telemetry studies have confirmed that many pronghorn are "dual citizens," migrating hundreds of miles between Montana and Alberta and Saskatchewan. These migration routes were previously unknown or poorly understood.
With this new information, conservationists, land managers, local ranchers and the transportation sector now have the opportunity to work cooperatively to try to reduce unnatural barriers within these important corridors. Fixes may range from the elegantly simple, such as leaving gates open on empty pastures, to the more complex considerations of overpasses and passing structures, which may give pronghorn a better chance to pass safely through to better winter range. Solutions must be practical, particularly for the folks who make their living in the prairies and we will need their help to succeed. Our partnership of scientists and managers hopes to engage with our neighbors in months to come, while data from the three-year field study are analyzed.
You can help as well. If you are driving in Eastern Montana this winter, be cautious for wildlife that may be pushed to the highway by heavy snow. Slowing down may prevent a collision.
The big, open spaces of the northern Great Plains are among the last places in this country where wildlife species can still migrate across the landscape for hundreds of miles, just like they have for centuries. Losing that would be a dramatic blow to both Montana's wildlife heritage and sense of identity.
By working together, we can help conserve, restore and pass on the wildlife heritage that makes all our lives richer.
Martha Kauffman of Bozeman is regional director for the World Wildlife Fund and a graduate of Montana State University.