Climate change impacts on hunting in Montana

What do we know so far?

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Montana has an incredibly strong tradition of hunting, and many of our state's residents work very hard to get some (or all) of the meat that they eat each year during bow and rifle season.

So what does climate change mean for Montana's game species? What do we know so far, and what major questions remain?

The answer is that we know a fair amount about some species, but not as much about others.

Here, we focus on the impacts of future climate change on some of Montana's most iconic game species:  elk, waterfowl, pronghorn antelope, and upland birds like grouse and pheasants.

(and if you're an angler, click these links to see pages on aquatic integrity and declining streamflows.)

Photo: iStock.

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Take elk, for example.

In 2011, we've seen temperatures well above normal here in Montana - in the 70's and even 80's - right up to the end of September.  Without cold temperatures to drive elk down from the tops of the mountains, it's just been too warm for elk hunting.

But what might the future hold for Montana's approximately 118,000 elk?

In "Beyond Season's End", a report (see link, at right) that examines the impacts of climate change on fish and wildlife in the coming decades, wildlife management and hunting organizations suggest that:

  • elks' ability to move around the landscape and use a variety of habitat types make them (and white-tailed deer) among the least vulnerable species to climate change,
  • survival rates among elk and deer may improve during increasingly warmer winters as snow packs become shallower and elk have better access to forage,
  • both elk and deer may shift their ranges northward as temperatures continue to warm, however, especially as plant ranges start to shift.

The ways in which plant life-cycles may change in a warmer and potentially drier climate is more difficult to predict:  this is an important unknown given that elk and deer births are timed each spring to coincide with the most nutritious plant growth.

Photo: iStock.

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Ducks and other waterfowl species may be a very different story, however.

Eastern Montana and the Dakotas' prairie pothole regions contain thousands of small ponds that produce huge numbers of waterfowl each year.

Known as the "Duck Factory," this region has been identified as one of North America's two most important waterfowl breeding areas by Ducks Unlimited.

Rising temperatures and drier summers could have significant impacts on these small ponds in the future, however:

  • Areas that flood seasonally now may be less likely to do so in the future if temperatures continue to rise as they have in the last century.
  • Some wetlands run the risk of drying up completely in the prairie pothole region, due to rising temperatures and increased amounts of evaporation, as well as increased competition with humans for water resources during years with shortages.

One solution to these threats to waterfowl is to restore pothole wetlands that have been drained in the past for agricultural use, which decreases habitat fragmentation and leads to higher levels of nesting success.

Photo: EJ Peiker.

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Colder, wetter winters, which we've been seeing as the climate has become more variable in recent years, can significantly affect species like pronghorn.

In the winter of 2010-2011, for example, uncharacteristically heavy snow across the region led to the death of thousands of pronghorn in eastern Montana.

As a result, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks was forced to issue far fewer pronghorn permits than usual this year for the state's estimated 216,000 antelope.

Beyond the impacts of increasingly variable weather and severe storm events, managers don't have a very good idea about how pronghorn may be affected by our changing climate thus far.

Pronghorn continue to be affected primarily by non-climate stressors, however, such as barriers to migration (like roads and fences) and habitat loss from energy and residential development.

One thing's for sure:  reducing non-climate stressors is more important now than ever, along with the development of monitoring programs to allow us to check in to see how species are doing as the climate continues to change.

Photo: iStock.

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Severe storm seasons are expected to become more common as the climate continues to change, and 2011 has already been a record year for weather disasters across the United States.

Increasing variability in weather patterns and more frequent extreme storm events have the potential to affect upland bird populations significantly here in Montana:

  • Pheasant eggs, for example, are sensitive to even a 1-2 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature, which affects hatching rates of clutches.
  • Cold, wet weather in spring storms also has negative impacts on upland birds like grouse, which lay eggs and raise young at this time of year.
  • Lastly, like ducks, upland birds are likely to be affected by mis-matches in breeding patterns and insect hatches that may develop as spring weather arrives earlier over time.
Photo: iStock.

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Hunters have the potential to be a key part of any solution to climate change for a variety of reasons:

  • They spend significant amounts of time out on the land every year, and, as a consequence, are an incredibly important source of knowledge about wildlife species and their habitat, and
  • They have proven their ability to develop creative solutions to our most challenging wildlife conservation problems in recent decades.
Both facts point to a critical role for hunters in the era of climate change, and many hunters and anglers are already working together through hunting clubs and organizations to identify potential threats (and solutions) to game populations from climate change.

What are your hunting clubs doing to help, and how can wildlife managers in your state work to keep ungulate and bird populations healthy in the coming years?

Because, as "Beyond Season's End" puts it:  yesterday's programs can't solve tomorrow's problems.

Photo: iStock.