The Paradox of Winter Precipitation
Snow is piling up in northeastern Montana. Two to four feet of packed ice crystals cover the prairie. Deer and antelope are dying by the hundreds, many from starvation. The animals simply expend too much energy pawing through the crusted drifts in relation to the bits of fodder they uncover on the frozen ground below. Seeking sanctuary from the endless miles of deep snow through which they flounder in single file, vast herds of antelope congregate on the railroad tracks snaking across the prairie. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks recently reported that over 200 antelope were killed near the lonely outpost of Hinsdale. The carnage was strewn for over a mile along the tracks.
Although the potentially record-breaking snowpack is decimating some species, it will likely prove a boon for others. The northeastern corner of the Treasure State is a portion of the country known for its prairie potholes, wetlands and small ponds essential for the nesting and reproduction of numerous species of waterfowl and other wetland-loving birds such as American avocets and black-necked stilts. Come spring, the water left behind from the melting snowpack will provides superb nesting conditions for these birds.
Such is the paradox of winter precipitation. Too much of it creates dismal and deathly environmental conditions for ungulates, but benefits the magpies, coyotes, bald eagles and other scavengers that feed upon their carcasses. Too little snowfall means easy wintering for ungulates, but lower water levels in the spring shrink wetlands, constricting habitat for birds. A “happy medium” is the best for both worlds — but in the harsh climate of northeastern Montana, Mother Nature seems to prefer her extremes.