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  Comments (0) Total Friday Apr. 18, 2014
A New Hope
Out Of Bounds
Winter is a rough time for wildlife. Most species have developed mechanisms to deal with the cold weather in the Northern Rockies, but sometimes these mechanisms aren’t enough.

The other day as I walked the bench near town I figured there’d been a little too much weather for my favorite chukar coveys to survive. The snow was unusually deep, and even with the Wyoming wind it blanketed the ground in continuous cover. There weren’t any patches of open ground.

Chukar are tough and adapted to cold, but the birds are too small to plow through really deep snow. They can survive for a spell without eating, but more than a few days and things can get dicey. Add below freezing temps and the birds are burning a lot of calories just to stay alive. They burn their fat reserves, then muscle, and at some point the balance tips and they just can’t survive.

Forest grouse move around to deal with weather, going higher into the mountains in the coldest months so they can feast on “tasty” conifer needles. That seems like an awfully harsh way to survive, but the birds seem fine with it.

Columbian sharp-tailed grouse is the game bird native to the Flathead Valley, though they’ve been gone a long time. I hope to one day see them reintroduced to the Flathead and other suitable habitat in western Montana. I used to hunt Columbian sharpies when I lived in Idaho. I prefer the slightly smaller Columbian subspecies to the grouse out on the prairies of Montana east of the mountains. I’m not sure there’s a good reason for that preference. I just have fond memories of that Idaho country and watching my first setter Jack learn to hunt on those birds.

Pheasant are big enough to dig a bit, and the males especially can deal with the weather in the Northern Rockies. In southern Idaho conservation groups such as Pheasants Forever pay farmers to plant shelter belts for the birds. Shelter belts usually include three rows, two being food sources and the third, fir or spruce evergreens to provide winter cover. In the wetter Flathead there are usually draws filled with cottonwood and willow on the edges of the valley’s disappearing farmland, so shelter belts may not be as critical as they are on the dry grasslands of Idaho.

Another popular import, gray partridge, are even hardier as they are native to more northern portions of the Eurasian steppe. The little buggers can burrow into the white stuff to snow roost when the weather is especially bad.

Our winter in Wyoming has been hard, but of course all’s relative. It only seems hard compare to the mild winters that have pretty much been the norm since I moved to the Rockies in the early 1990s. Back then the natives liked to joke that all it would take would be a few old fashioned winters and the Californians would clear out, quick. What the old timers didn’t realize is that the hard winters might be gone for good.

Things have gotten so mild that humans aren’t the only species to move north from California. Valley quail have now established themselves in the Bitterroot Valley. I fished at Tucker Crossing near Victor a few years back during the spring and heard birds calling from either side of the river.

The other day I headed back to the bench so the dog could stretch her legs. It had warmed to the 50s and there were open patches in the sage. We headed to a draw where I’ve seen chukar many times, but wasn’t optimistic. Then, in the distance, I watched as a covey glided across the draw to a patch of open sage on a south-facing slope. The birds have survived the season, at least so far.

I don’t know why those birds chose that moment to reveal themselves. Maybe there was a coyote in the vicinity, or I just happened to look when the birds took to the wing. Maybe the force was with me that day. I don’t know, but it was good to see them.

Knowing they’re still hanging on just makes the bench a better place.
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