Montana still is home to an abundance of wild life. The proudly tossed antlers of an elk or buck deer outlined against the sky, a bear shuffling through the underbrush, the flash of a pheasant rocketing from a hidden nest, the gleam of trout rising to a fly through the transparent waters of a mountain stream: these are familiar pictures to frequenters of Montana's forests.
Moose, mountain goats, and antelope are nearly at a standstill; mountain sheep are growing fewer. There is a surplus of elk in the Flathead, Lewis and Clark, Gallatin, and Absaroka Forests, where the range is over-grazed to the point of extermination for the most valuable forage plants, and in some places to total denudation. Attempts at control by extension of the hunting season have proven unsatisfactory.
The commonest game birds include Chinese, or ring-necked, pheasant; Hungarian partridge; blue, ruffed, and Franklin (fool hen) grouse; mallard; teal; canvasback and gadwall ducks; and Canadian geese.
The hatcheries are at Big Timber, Sweet Grass County; Hamilton, Ravalli County; Emigrant, Park County; Libby, Lincoln County; Lewistown, Fergus County; Ovando, Powell County; Polson, Lake County; Red Lodge, Carbon County; Somers, Flathead County; Havre, Hill County; Wolf Creek, Lewis and Clark County; Anaconda; Great Falls; and Miles City.
Spawning stations are at Flint Creek and Steward Mill on Georgetown Lake, Deer Lodge County; Ashley and Rodgers Lake, Flathead County; Hebgen Lake, Gallatin County; Lake Ronan, Lake County; and Lake Francis, Pondera County. A pond cultural station is maintained at Miles City.
High, almost inaccessible slopes in Glacier National Park, the Mission Range, and the rugged Cabinet Mountains are the stronghold of the mountain goat, an obscure member of the antelope tribe--to which the American "antelope" does not belong. It lives usually above timber line, amid snowbanks, glaciers, and precipices, and feeds chiefly on the short moss that grows on rocks and in crevices. It climbs the sharpest slant easily, and can be approached only from above, being apparently unable to understand that anything can descend upon it.
Buffalo have been wholly restricted to game preserves since the first protective legislation in 1894. Among predatory animals, cougar and wolf are most dangerous to young livestock. The weasel and coyote are the worst chicken thieves. Damage to field crops by gophers and Jack rabbits yearly reaches a high figure. A prime nuisance is the pack rat, which carries off anything that takes its fancy.
The pelican, with its large ugly fish-pouch jaw, is a bird rare in Montana. The great blue heron summers along marshy streams. Wild canaries, juncoes, meadow-larks, blackbirds, bobolinks, chickadees, and scores of other bird species are common. A showy but unpopular one is the ubiquitous magpie, a long-tailed, noisy, black and white scavenger that frequents highways in search of gophers and rabbits killed by cars. Peculiarly hateful is its practice of harassing livestock by picking at little wounds and scratches.
Of all the fauna in the State, the greatest menace to life and health is the tick. One species, Dermacentor andersoni, of the class popularly known as wood tick, carries tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever to human beings and tick-paralysis to humans and animals. It also causes serious local lesions. The wood tick feeds on many animals; in immature stages it usually fastens upon small rodents, such as mice or squirrels. Like its relative, the dog tick, this species is marked with reddish-brown splotches on the back.
In early spring the ticks emerge from the ground and the bark of stumps. Unable to endure hot dry weather, they disappear from the lower elevations during June and July and from the higher ones in later summer.
The pine butterfly, which defoliates yellow and white pine, is black above and white beneath, with white wings netted with black. A few hours after mating, it lays eggs along the needles of the treetops. The eggs remain over the winter and hatch in June; the larvae eat the needles, and in late July, lowering themselves as much as 75 feet by silken threads, pupate in shrubs, grass, fences, and stumps.
Many kinds of grasshoppers and cutworms, army worms, and Mormon crickets, have caused serious damage to Montana agriculture. In contrast, the bee is highly profitable. The abundant alfalfa and sweet clover of the irrigated valleys form the major sources of supply. In the fruit-growing counties bees have great value in cross-pollination.
A rare animal in Montana is the axolotl (Mex.: plays in the water), a larval salamander found in the pools and mountain lakes of Madison County. Mexicans regard it as edible. It is six to ten inches long, and identical with young amblystoma tigrinum, terrestrial salamanders of the warmer parts of the United States and Mexico. The axolotl retains its external gills and breeds in the larval stages. But, should its native pool dry up, it is capable of becoming an adult salamander, adapted to land life.
Rattlesnakes, the only poisonous reptiles in Montana, occur in twentythree central, southern, and western counties. They average four feet in length, and are yellow to brown with a symmetrical row of darker rounded and separated blotches on the back, narrowly bordered with yellow or white. A distinct V of light color is on the shield above each eye. Natural enemies of destructive rodents, rattlesnakes are also dangerous to man. Occasional organized hunts keep them well under control.