Snowpack buries Montana

There's good news in all that white stuff covering the state: Montana has abundant snowpack.

It's still only March, and as we saw last year, conditions can change dramatically by summer, but for now it looks like there should be plenty of water for river users, trout and farmers in 2018.

The Upper Yellowstone watershed leads the way, sitting at 164 percent of average snowpack on March 9. Also above 150 percent of average are the upper Clarks Fork at 156, and the Sun-Teton-Maria drainage at 155.

The Flathead River, which drains into the Clarks Fork near Paradise, Montana, of course, is at 141 percent. All that snow has led flood warnings when temperatures rise. Smart investors in the western part of the state are already stocking up on sandbag futures.

The spring months generally provide the heaviest precipitation of the year in Montana, but that wasn't the case in 2017. Following a wet winter, Montana's spring was especially dry, and the the summer turned the state into a fire-scorched inferno.

If the state gets average spring precip, all that snow should keep rivers full, and habitat conditions healthy for trout.

Southwest Montana leads state in game violations

FWP regions 2 and 3, spread along Montana's southwest border from Missoula to Yellowstone National Park, had the highest number of FWP violations in the state, according to a report in the Great Falls Tribune.

There were 7,262 violations in Region 3 from 2010-18. Region 3 includes the Bozeman area, Butte and the Big Hole Valley. Region 2, which includes the Missoula area and the Bitterroot Valley, was second with 5,467 violations. South central Region 5, which includes Billings, was third with 4,503. Region 1 anchored by Kalispell had 4,119 violations, Region 4  had 2,842, Region 7, in eastern Montana, had 2,810.

Region 6, on the Hi-Line had the fewest violations with 1,526 from 2010-18.

Recreation, including off road vehicles, camping and boating, made up 29 percent of the citations. Hunting accounted for 25 percent, and licensing issues another 24 percent. Fines totaled $3.8 million. The money is split 50-50 between the state and the county where the incident occurred.

CWD infected deer concentrated along Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone

Two percent of deer killed and tested during the regular fall hunting season, as well as in a special hunt that ended Feb. 15, were infected with Chronic Wasting Disease. Ten deer had CWD, out of about 400 deer tested in the region south of Bridger, according to a release from Montana FWP.

Hunters killed 327 deer during the special hunt and all were tested. The 400 number includes deer killed during the regular hunt season, when hunters voluntarily submitted samples for CWD testing. Those voluntary tests showed two deer were positive for CWD. FWP then authorized the special winter hunt in which all deer were tested.

A 5 percent infection rate is the level at which biologists implement additional measures in an attempt to control a CWD outbreak. While the overall infection rate was below that level, in Hunt District 510 along the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River between Belfry and Bridger, the infection rate was closer to 10 percent.

CWD is fatal to deer, elk and moose, but there are no documented cases of the disease being transmitted to animals or humans outside the deer family. Still, the Centers for Disease Control recommends testing for all deer killed in areas where the disease is known to exist, and that the meat from animals that test positive not be consumed.

Malformed proteins called prions cause CWD. The infection is similar to so-called Mad Cow Disease that can be transmitted to humans when they eat infected beef. The disease has killed more than 200 people, primarily in Great Britain, since an outbreak in 1996.

For more information about CWD in Montana, check Hook and Bullet's rundown of the issue here. The story provides links to past articles chronicling Montana's efforts to compact the fatal wildlife disease. Included is a map that shows the extent of the disease in North America.

Commission approves new regs, no griz hunt

Regs for 2018-19 were OK'd Thursday. The new rules include a permit-only hunt area near the Fisher River east of Libby. In part of Hunting District 103 only five buck permits will be available in the area. Applications for the permits are due March 15.

The commission also decided against holding griz hunt this year following the delisting of the bear under the Endangered Species Act. Commissioners expressed concern that allowing a hunt might fuel legal efforts to overturn the delisting decision. Wyoming will likely approve a hunt this year. It's unclear what Idaho will do.

The formula approved by the feds for Montana griz hunting would have allowed for one female and six male grizzly bears to be killed. Commissioner Shane Cotton suggested other states were "tilting at windmills" by pursuing hunts.

Griz hunting in windy Wyoming remains a contentious topic. Human-griz encounters in Park County (Wyo.) seem to be on the rise and building a bear-proof fence at the county dump has become a source of friction for hunting advocates and opponents.

Montana goes slow on griz hunt

It looks as though Montana will hold off on grizzly hunting in 2018, despite the recent delisting of the bears under the Endangered Species Act.

Montana grizzly bears are reclaiming territory — such as the Sweet Grass Hills — where they haven’t been seen in decades. Griz roamed the Hills in the summer of 2016, and residents of towns such as Valier along the Rocky Mountain Front are reacquainting themselves with the day-to-day precautions of living in bear country.

That’s what happens when you recover an endangered species — it’s no longer endangered. As bear numbers grow youngsters will wander, searching for suitable habitat unoccupied by adult bears who may not appreciate their presence. And as the bears wander, inevitably their explorations will lead them to trouble. The bears that trekked across 100 miles of prairie to the Hills were likely responsible for killing 13 sheep.

We can expect incidents such as this as Montana grizzly bears expand their range. We’ll need to respond promptly to such problems, trapping and relocating bears, or removing them from the wild altogether if they can’t stay out of trouble.

It’s great that grizzlies no longer endangered. Montanans may soon learn that managing a recovered population of large, dangerous predators is more challenging than recovering them in the first place, however.

World record bighorn

The skull of a bighorn ram that died of natural causes on Wild Horse Island in Flathead Lake has shattered the Boone and Crockett world record. The horn’s measured 216-3/8 inches, besting the previous top ram by almost seven inches.

The herd on Wild Horse isn’t hunted, and has been carefully managed by Montana FWP to provide source population for bighorn restoration efforts in the region. There are about 100 sheep in the Wild Horse herd. The island measures 2,160 acres and since it’s a Montana State Park, these public lands are available for wildlife watching for anyone with a boat.

The Flathead Beacon has a nice wrap-up here.

Winter snowpack above average

Montana's snowpack looks good across the state, but it's still just early February. As we learned in 2017's dismal fire season, winter snow doesn't always survive through summer.

Still, this is good news for Montana river users. Keep your fingers crossed that our rafts won't be dragging in August.

Montana Dems, Repubs agree: We support conservation

Montana is a classic purple state, albeit one that leans red. We elect Republican majorities to our legislature, and Democrats as governor. Our congressional delegation in D.C. has long been a mix of both parties.

But on the issue of conservation and our love of the outdoors, there is no divide. Montanans stand in unity behind conservation of the Treasure State's unparalleled natural resources. That was reconfirmed again by Colorado College's annual Conservation in the West survey.

Among other things, the survey showed that 82 percent of Montanans consider themselves conservationists, and 87 percent say they are outdoor recreation enthusiasts. Hopefully, that's a reality pols seeking state office won't soon forget.

Protect it, and make sure we can access it.