Winter weather taking toll on Montana waterfowl

BILLINGS — This winter’s near-record cold and snow apparently is starting to take its toll on waterfowl in south central Montana.

Jim Hansen of Billings, central flyway biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said dead geese and ducks that he has picked up in the region are emaciated. Those that still are alive are unable to fly from lack of food. Geese which he normally would expect to weight 10 pounds at this time of year weighed less than 4.5 pounds.

While many waterfowl migrate south as soon as cold days and short daylight hours arrive each fall, many geese and ducks did not leave south central Montana this winter. Birds that spend the winter in the region normally would have waste grain and sugar beets as well as grass and alfalfa to sustain them, Hansen said.

This year, heavy snow arrived in December and it became difficult for geese and ducks to find food in agricultural fields. A few warm days in January did not melt enough snow to uncover food sources, but it did form an icy crust on the snow. More heavy snow followed, eventually adding up to more than 84 inches in the Billings area.

Additionally, waterfowl were stressed by temperatures that fell to -30 degrees along the Yellowstone River early in February. As a result, many waterfowl have been living on their own body fat and muscle tissue since before the first of the year. Hunters who harvested geese in early January reported that some birds were skinny and had not fed.

Eventually the waterfowl became so weak that they could not fly south even when extreme cold and snow shut off their food sources.

Hansen credited mild winters during the past two or three years with prompting geese and ducks to stay around Montana for the winter. Many that survived the earlier mild winters never have been south of Montana and did not recognize cues that normally would initiate migration.

On Jan. 2 and 3, FWP biologists surveyed portions of the central flyway near Fort Peck and along the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers. They counted 16,711 ducks and 79,222 geese spending the winter in the survey areas.

Anyone who sees multiple dead waterfowl may leave a message for Hansen at 406-247-2957 and report the place and number of birds.