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A Road Kill Winter

This has been a road kill winter. The deep snows brought elk to lower elevations and there seem to have been more moose around. Whitetail deer are congregating in stands of thick forest adjacent to creeks and roads. They have made well-beaten trails and beds in the tree wells; the nearby creeks, riverbanks, railroad tracks and roads are used for snow-free trails on the animals’ imperative quest for food. Add to this mixture huge berms of snow that obscure a driver’s vision and carnage is cooked up.

Defensive driving and accepting the limitations of road conditions could have lessened some of the slaughter. Understanding the likelihood of large wild animals on the road and knowing that whitetail travel together is helpful. Simply honking the horn could save a costly car repair and an animal life.

Most of us living in this corner of Montana who drive know that it is a hassle to hit a deer, and I would like to think that most of us have found it an unpleasant experience. The drivers who don’t give a tinker’s damn about the unnecessary suffering and death of one of God’s creations are the ones who continue to drive too fast and thoughtlessly. The trucker who, ignoring the flashing lights warning of big horn sheep on the highway, blasted through the group and killed seven sheep. Rather than contrition, he expressed only irritation. Such drivers have an under-developed sense of compassion, and while not a Jeffery Dahmer sicko who tortured pets as a child, they are self-involved, unaware, unreligious.

The ability to feel compassion is demonstrated in an American Indian hunter thanking the deer for giving up his life. The ability to have deep feelings of awe, respect, reverence for the Creator’s great gift - our green and blue living globe - has developed in all world religions.

In hunting, as opposed to highway carnage, the life taken has some value. Those who depend upon wild protein are thankful to fill freezers with wholesome food. On a guided hunt, a client from Ohio who shoots a trophy elk may not actually thank the elk for its life, but he is willing to pay a lot of money to feel this happy. Hunting has always provided an important personal resource and now has become a major contribution to the state’s economy.

Elk were first brought into this region in 1912 when a boxcar from Yellowstone was offloaded near Thompson River. Stretching west were thousands of acres of grass, low brush and beckoning habitat. Now, 98 years after the big fire, much of this ground has grown into thick timber and managing elk numbers is necessary. Hunting is one management tool.

Some people have expressed their outrage that wolves will actually kill elk. I suspect they are the ones who still drive fast and thoughtlessly, and are parroting some nitwit radio personality who will never understand the necessary balance of nature. In the late 70s, when we first drove through Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, the cottonwood groves were like feedlots, trampled and bare of vegetation. There were no creek side willows, no brush on the banks. There were no beaver, and no riparian-dependent species like songbirds. There were many coyotes, but few owls and hawks. The re-introduction of wolves brought a severely damaged landscape back to environmental health by simply keeping the elk from loafing around the creek bottom. Being hunted by wolves, the surviving elk get smarter, healthier and the habitat recovers.

The transformation in the Lamar Valley was quicker, more dramatic than biologists expected, and vividly demonstrated the resilience of nature. Purposeful reintroduction continued elsewhere throughout the region. Wolves began reintroducing themselves, dropping down from Canada and returning to their old hunting grounds. Wolves were deemed successful enough to remove them from the Endangered Species List and turn their management over to the state. I personally applaud this move, seeing it as validation that the Endangered Species Act works.

The contentious dialogue on wolf delisting is not clarified by Butch Otter’s boast that he wants to kill the first wolf himself. (By this statement alone, he has wrestled the state motto, ‘Our Governor is Dumber Than Yours,’ away from the record holder, Montana’s ex, Judy Martz). Wolves, like all of God’s creations, are not merely a trophy to collect; they are a necessary component of a healthy balanced habitat.

Many environmentalists are upset at the idea of wolves being hunted. Yet, since they are here, it is necessary to keep their numbers in equilibrium. It will be important for the state Fish & Wildlife biologists to maintain some flexibility for a nimble and self-correcting policy. Personally I find it a little odd to kill an animal that is not threatening you or your livestock or that is not meant for the table; but different stokes...

The wolves are back, and are a much better management tool than road kill to control deer and elk populations.

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Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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