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Call of the Mild

With regional snowpack at record lows and average temperatures well above normal, how are local wildlife coping with the unusual winter?

Fall-like conditions lasted well into winter across the region, including the upper Yellowstone watershed within the Park. Here, Yellowstone's Crevice Creek Trail in December 2023. Photo by Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Fall-like conditions lasted well into winter across the region, including the upper Yellowstone watershed within the Park. Here, Yellowstone's Crevice Creek Trail in December 2023. Photo by Jacob W. Frank/NPS
by David Tucker

Skiing along the sage-flecked hillsides of the upper Gallatin River drainage, it’s impossible not to notice the striking lack of snow. Like most of Montana, the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park looks more like October than January, and the river here runs gin clear with little ice and only modest accumulation along its banks. Stepping out of my skis to adjust my at-the-moment-obsolete gaiters, I easily punch through to dormant grasses just a few inches below the snowpack’s surface.

By now you’ve seen the headlines: record low snow, record high average temps. Even on the heels of our first sustained blast of winter weather, river basins in Greater Yellowstone sit around 62 percent of average snow-water equivalent for January 23, and while many focus on what this means their winter recreation, it’s the wildlife whose seasonal patterns are perhaps most disrupted.
“Snowpack drives everything around here. If we don’t have that [snowpack] … that can really cause problems for fish.” – Connor Parrish, Trout Unlimited
At the moment, the current lack of snow and cold temps could actually be helping the piscine population. “Fish regulate their body temperature and their metabolism based on water temperature,” said Connor Parrish, program manager for Trout Unlimited’s Gallatin Home Rivers Initiative. “so the last few weeks when it’s been pretty warm—we don’t have ice like we typically do—they’re going on about their business and feeding really heavily. So, they’re not really hurting for the most part. In fact, in some ways, it could actually enhance their growth, so … in the very short term, it can be fine.”

In the longer term, not so much.

“Snowpack drives everything around here,” Parrish continued. “If you look at Bozeman, we get precipitation similar to places that are deserts, but we get it at a time of year when the temperatures are cold, so that precipitation hangs on way into the summer in the form of snow that melts and continuously feeds our rivers. If we don’t have that [snowpack] … that can really cause problems for fish.”
The Gallatin River as it meanders out of Yellowstone National Park. As of January 23, the Gallatin River watershed was at 62 percent of average snow-water equivalent and upper river sections remained ice-free. Photo by David Tucker
The Gallatin River as it meanders out of Yellowstone National Park. As of January 23, the Gallatin River watershed was at 62 percent of average snow-water equivalent and upper river sections remained ice-free. Photo by David Tucker
A limited supply of cold water leads to an increased demand for it, and as with many things in nature’s free market, only the fittest survive. Parrish pointed out that this winter, fish that would normally occupy the lower Gallatin could move upstream, increasing fish density and competition.

In that scenario, it’s the native species that tend to lose out. “Our native fish—Yellowstone and westslope cutthroat—are more susceptible to warmer water temperatures,” Parrish said. “Rainbow trout are a big problem for cutthroat. They can hybridize and over time we can actually lose all the cutthroat genetics.” The upper Yellowstone’s cutthroat face such a threat, according to Parrish.

In other drainages, mobility might not save even the most intrepid salmonids. While the Gallatin and Yellowstone are undammed, allowing for safe passage to cooler river reaches, the Madison’s impoundments preclude in-stream migrations between the lower and upper river sections. “Those fish have more of a challenge,” Parrish said. And while this winter has so far proven anomalous within the historic record, it fits within the longer-term patterns and future projections. “This is probably something that we’re going to run into more,” Parrish said, adding that we need to build durable, resilient solutions.

Lilly McLane agrees. “We need to be prepared for drought anyway,” said McLane, restoration program director for the Gallatin Watershed Council. “We need to build resilience to get us through the normal cyclical drought patterns, patterns that are then exacerbated due to climate change.”

Streamside vegetation has been particularly impacted, according to McLane, pointing to a 40-percent loss due to human impacts over the last two decades. “When the world is getting hot and dry, it becomes that much more important to have good quality riparian habitat for the survival of wildlife species.”
The snow-water equivalent on Jan. 23 in southwest Montana and around Greater Yellowstone was just over 60 percent of average. Map courtesy USDA
The snow-water equivalent on Jan. 23 in southwest Montana and around Greater Yellowstone was just over 60 percent of average. Map courtesy USDA
Restoration of that critical habitat is underway thanks to collaboration between nonprofits, agencies and landowners across the region. “We want to protect areas that retain snow well,” McLane explained. “We want to protect wetlands that store water well and we want to protect riparian areas that store water well. Forest health is also important—that vegetation on the landscape that holds snow in place and allows for … water to slowly hit the ground and percolate down into the groundwater.”

Back on terra firma, the drought is also impacting the region’s megafauna. According to Subhadeep Bhattacharjee, wolf management specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the ungulate migration out of Yellowstone and into Paradise Valley was late this year, and as the wolves follow the herds, four to five packs have co-located around the park’s North Entrance. “A wolf’s life is simple,” Bhattacharjee said. “They follow the elk.”
“My biggest concern is what is it going look like next August. Are we going have a four-month [bear] conflict season instead of a two-month season?” –Evan Stout, owner of Yellowstone Wildlife Guide Company 
This year, however, the wolves weren’t alone in their pursuit. Because of warm temps early in the season, grizzly bears denned later than normal, there was “no free ground for wolves in late fall and early winter,” Bhattacharjee said. “Cold and snow make wolves the apex.” This winter, that cold weather has been harder to come by, although it’s too early to tell exactly how this dynamic will impact pack health going forward, Bhattacharjee cautioned.

Luckily for the lobos, the packs in the Northern Range are big. “It helps with hunting,” said Evan Stout, owner of Yellowstone Wildlife Guide Company. “Deeper snow, colder temperatures will help, but the point where we’ll see [low snow] affect the abundance of food for them will be later in the winter.”
A grizzly in early winter conditions. During unseasonably warm winters, grizzlies can emerge from hibernation as early as January. NPS photo
A grizzly in early winter conditions. During unseasonably warm winters, grizzlies can emerge from hibernation as early as January. NPS photo
That low snow and the warm temps that have dominated this winter’s weather might have allowed grizzlies to pack on the pounds before denning, but if the trend continues, it could spell trouble come summer. “My biggest concern is what is it going look like next August,” said Stout, who also volunteers as the director of Bear Awareness Gardiner. “Are we going have a four-month conflict season instead of a two-month season? I’m fully expecting to see bears in town earlier—earlier, and more bears.”

While bears love bacon grease and pizza crust as much as the next guy, their traditional diet includes nuts and berries. “Low-snow years can have significant impacts on natural foods, especially at higher elevations where bears tend to forage throughout the peak of the summer,” Stout said. “This winter is very much on that course … I’m worried about not getting the berry crops, not getting the whitebark crops, not getting the mushrooms, not getting the grasses and the tubers that those bears are going to need. Anytime those bears come down into town looking for unnatural food sources, it can lead to conflict with humans, and potentially removal for habituated bears.”

As winter progresses, the wildlife citizens of Greater Yellowstone continue to get by, adapting as they always have. For now, some thrive and some struggle, but it’s too early to tell if the record low snowpack will persist, and if it does, what exactly the outcomes will be for wildlife. What’s certain is that there will be consequences, and new patterns and behaviors will emerge as years like this become more common.

In the meantime, pray for snow.

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.

David Tucker
About David Tucker

David Tucker is a freelance journalist covering conservation, recreation and the environment in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
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