Many species of big-game animals are establishing new homes across western Montana’s valleys and mountains, according to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “Wildlife has an awesome capacity to expand and fill new niches,” says FWP information officer Bill Thomas.
Antelope have once again shown up along the foothills near Drummond and close to the Continental Divide near Elliston and the Blackfoot River and Bitterroot valleys. The wildfires that ravaged the region in 2000 opened areas of the forest to allow antelope from the Big Hole Valley to travel over the mountains into the Bitterroot. That combined with ten winters of shallow snow pack have aided the migration.
Grizzly bears have expanded their range out of the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wildernesses. “All indications are the bears are back in much of their traditional range,” says Thomas. The protected status of grizzly bears during the last 30 years, as well as the safeguarding and enhancement of grizzly habitat, explain the comeback. A survey conducted during the summer of 2004 to collect hair samples of grizzly bears across the entire Northern Continental Divide ecosystem will determine exactly how far the bears have spread.
In the course of their efforts to trap and relocate sheep from an expanding herd along the Big Blackfoot River, FWP game managers discovered a sheep with an ear tag that indicated it had traveled more than 40 air miles and across a mountain range from near Arlee on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Sheep from herds near Rock Creek have been discovered 50 miles up the Clark Fork River near Gold Creek.
The downside of this migration is the potential spread of disease. In 2002 bighorns were spotted mingling with domestic sheep in the Gold Creek area. Fearing that the bighorns would pick up diseases from the sheep and carry them back to bighorns in the Rock Creek area, game wardens arrived the following day to kill the roaming rams, but the bighorns had moved on.