Winter Wildlife at Chase Farm
For one who loves growing plants, such as myself, winter can be tough. The garden has yellowed and crumbled. The trees are all reduced to dry twigs, excepting the pines that make up our shelter belt. On this magical 12 acres we call home, however, winter still offers something that thrills me; winter is when the wildlife moves down.
The Speed Goats
By far our most numerous visitors are the antelope (yes, I know they’re pronghorns, not antelope. But I can’t seem to correct myself.) Antelope herd up in the winter, so large groups of up to 100 animals come through our property. Most often, they come down from the property north of us in the morning and make a large circle around our hay field and onto our neighbors, then back up to the North and they’re gone by 10.
The antelope have a special affection for our property during the worst storms. This winter we saw several snowstorms with temperatures well below zero and winds near nearing 25 mph. During such miserable conditions, they find relative comfort in our shelterbelt. They will bed down and drift in behind the trees until the storm begins to let up. As soon as it does, the ever wary herd moves on.
The Saga of the Red Fox
Our favorite regular visitor is the fox. Well, there are two, actually, though we rarely see both on the same day. As we’ve heard from our neighbors, there used to be many foxes around here, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service decided that they were negatively impacting migratory birds (we live near Lake Helena) and therefore trapped them all out. It wasn’t long before there was an explosion in the local ground squirrel population. Ground squirrels destroy hay/alfalfa fields and that is what mostly surrounds us. So now, everyone is trying anything and everything to control the squirrel populations, which generally means poison. This is the wisdom of removing predators from an ecosystem.
Aside from knowing that our dear foxes are helping keep the ground squirrels at bay, they are mighty entertaining! Watching them pounce on small rodents moving beneath the snow is something you simply must see at least once. My favorite, though, is watching their interactions with our dog (through a fence). We’ll let our German Shorthair out in the morning and if the fox is around, he’ll tear out barking his head off. He’ll get to the fence and run back and forth barking his head off and generally losing his shit, as domestic dogs are wont to do. As I’ve witnessed more than once, the delightfully blasé fox will just sit down and watch our dog carry on with a detached sense of bemusement. Foxes are the coolest members of Family Canidae and they certainly know it.
We also get plenty of Whitetail deer passing through, though they spend most of their time on neighbors land rather than ours. Deer are sort of the giant rats of the Helena Valley, so it’s hard to get excited about them unless they are in little white packages in your freezer.
Less Frequent Visitors
The first winter after we moved here, we got elk daily for a month in the late fall. It was amazing! There were 11 cows and 1 large bull with a spectacular rack that came down every morning for a few hours. Naturally, this was right after Eric’s first unsuccessful season hunting elk and he seemed to feel rather like our dog feels about the foxes! One morning in particular, I remember seeing all of the elk, about 50 antelope and a fox all within 50 yards of each other. What an astounding sight! You’d be hard-pressed to find that much wildlife so close nearly anywhere, much less in the middle of a neighborhood (well, a rural one, anyhow).
There are a few other carnivores that come through from time to time. Coyotes, naturally, are one we see and hear from time to time. The two that several of our neighbors saw late last fall, but we never got to see were a wolf and a mountain lion! The wolf was a female with a tracking collar. I’d love to see the data on where she came from and where she went. The two were in the neighborhood at roughly the same time, probably because there were many deer hanging around on nearby fields for weeks.
Luckily, our wild visitors come by all year round, but winter is prime-time. It brings a little more wonder to those long, cooped-up months of winter!