CLEARWATER JUNCTION — Not 10 minutes from the trailhead the herd of elk punched its own path perpendicular to the skiers.
The scene was an early highlight to a beautiful day cross-country skiing along the Blackfoot River. But it also illuminated the difficulty wild animals face when people poke into the winter woods.
“We all want people out playing in the winter, supporting local economies that depend on winter recreation,” said Adam Lieberg, a wildlife tracking expert who’s spent years on conservation biology projects in the Seeley-Swan Valley. “But we have to find creative ways to protect areas for wildlife. Even in a mild winter their health is on slow decline all through the winter until that spring green-up happens.”
Barely an hour northeast of Missoula, the Seeley-Swan Valley offers lots of motorized and human-powered winter fun. Several groomed networks of snowmobile and cross-country ski trails radiate from the town of Seeley Lake, while the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management territory around Ovando has untracked snowfields and ice-covered lakes open for adventure.
On a short trek along Sperry Grade last weekend, a half-dozen skiers encountered three times as many elk watering along the Blackfoot River. The herd bunched up and scooted across the old ranch road into the thicker timber, stopping about 100 yards away.
“That’s probably part of the big herd on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range between Highway 200 and Highway 83,” Lieberg said. “In the winter, when they’re pushed down to the lower elevations, they’re crossing highways in bigger groups. We see a big pulse in highway mortality in deer and elk during the winter there.”
Grizzly and black bears have all moved into their winter dens, but lots of other predators keep hunting all year round. Seeley Lake Ski Club trail groomer Bruce Reiman said many animals take advantage of his plow tracks to get around.
“We will see wolf tracks, lion tracks and lynx tracks, moose tracks and elk tracks,” Reiman said. “Especially now there’s a heavy crust on the snow and animals are struggling to move around, they like to use the trails we groom.”
Along the Blackfoot, whitetail deer left tracks 7 to 8 feet apart, wowing the clumsy humans who struggled in the knee-deep snow. But on the return trip the people found fresh deer hoofprints punched into their ski trail.
Ungulates such as deer and elk must make a challenging dietary shift to get through the snowy months. As fall changes to winter they adjust the mix of digestive bacteria in their guts to pull nutrients out of twigs and bark. When new growth returns in spring, they must adjust again.
“That takes their gut a while to change their biota,” Lieberg said. “We often see another pulse of winter mortality in the first couple weeks of spring green-up, which seems counter-intuitive. That’s why healthy winter range is really important.”