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The Winter Killing Fields

Andrew McKean Avatar

With more than 80 inches of snow and temperatures plummeting to the -40s, wildlife is struggling, and in some cases succumbing, to the conditions. I collected these images of antelope and whitetails struggling with the weather, and in some cases, on their last legs. All around my hometown of Glasgow, antelope are congregating on the slopes where the snow is a little shallower than the wheat fields and prairies.
Antelope evolved to migrate out of the harshest winter weather. But they also evolved to move across a landscape without fences, roads or railroads. The human landscape ends up trapping pronghorns in hostile habitats, in this case prairie so drifted with snow that antelope have trouble pawing down to forage.
Where they do move, antelope follow each other, taking turns breaking trail through the deep snow.
And they typically gather on the tops of slopes, bedding in the snow and finding bits of sagebrush and other forage.
When they find available sagebrush, the antelope strip off any palatable forage, leaving only naked sticks.
Here, antelope are bedded down at sunset prior to a night when the mercury plummeted to -38 degrees.
Some of these antelope will never rise from their beds in the snow.
The antelope seek the path of least resistance, moving along plowed roads. Last week a herd of several hundred antelope found easy movement along the tracks of the Burling Northern Santa Fe railroad. A pre-dawn freight plowed into the herd, killing or maiming more than 200 pronghorn.
Large numbers of antelope have also been killed by vehicles on paved roads in the region.
But they're dying in large numbers even away from the roads.
This young buck tried to move through drifted snow but finally stopped cold. He couldn't turn around, couldn't advance. This spot on the snowbound prairie is probably the grave of this antelope.
Even the human landscape in the area is compromised. This is a gravel road in the Milk River Valley.
I took an ill-advised run on the snow-drifted road. This particular day I frost-bit my cheeks in -18-degree weather.
The Milk River's legendary whitetails are also suffering. They've been surviving thanks to ranchers' hay bales for the last couple of months.
Many deer have frost-bitten ears. This young whitetail has a frost-bitten tail, the dead tissue hanging from its rump.
Will the winter break? It has to, eventually, but probably not before significant numbers of deer and antelope, and probably elk and upland birds, are lost to exposure and starvation.

In eastern Montana, winter came early and hit hard, and it’s never relented. Hunting Editor, Andrew McKean, documents the damage.