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A herd of elk gathers near Crail Ranch in early December 2019. PHOTO BY VINCE MENG

By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR

BIG SKY – Under the gentle glow of a headlamp, Big Sky homeowner Vince Meng has caught glimpses into the secret lives of wild animals. He glides, the swish-swish of skis on snow a steady sound in the night. He takes pause from a distance to watch a coyote; other times it’s a fox or a sparse handful of browsing elk.

Sometimes he may not spy a wild animal at home on the same trails he skis—the very golf course positioned in the meadow near Town Center—but more often than not he’ll see their tracks: the swaths of elk hooves or depressions left by moose, the pitter-patter or slide left by otters or beaver as they meander the West Fork of the Gallatin River.

“There’s a lot of wildlife here,” he said, reflecting on how special it is to have wild animals in Big Sky. “We’re surrounded by the Lee Metcalf [Wilderness]. There’s wild, wild country all around us here.”

In the daylight hours, Meng—like many homeowners who’ve been drawn to Big Sky—occasionally spots moose or elk, and was thrilled to spot an entire herd of elk moving through the Crail Ranch area in early December.

“I would guess they are moving to winter range somewhere,” he said. “The elk crossed the main highway near Town Center and fortunately a patrolman was there who stopped traffic and acted as a crossing guard.”

Meng has owned a vacation home at Crail Ranch for 15 years where he stays during the winter season. Over the years, he says he’s seen an increasing amount of wildlife, something he’s not sure is the result of just spending more time in Big Sky, a product of town growth or animal population changes. Either way, he said, “It seems we see more wildlife all the time in spite of the continuing development.”

“Overall, everybody should feel so fortunate to live here,” he said. “I think most people who live here understand they need to respect the wildlife here but we get a lot of visitors.”

Meng said he watched a cross-country skier yell and harass two bull moose right in front of his condo last year. “He was lucky he wasn’t charged,” he said. “Many people I encounter on the trails are from out of state and have no familiarity at all with the animals.”

A moose strolls the Big Sky Town Center sidewalk beneath the Lone Peak Cinema in November 2019. PHOTO BY MICHAEL PITCAIRN

He added that folks are obviously excited to see different animals, but education goes a long way in safely living and recreating with wildlife.

Kris Inman, who oversees the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bear Smart Big Sky Campaign, has frequently written on this topic as it applies to bears in her “Bear Basics with Bernadette Bear” column for EBS—where she takes a close look at how human actions can have grave consequences for bears—but the concept applies to all of Big Sky’s wildlife: a few concerted actions on the part of everyone coming to and living in Big Sky can keep Montana’s wildlife healthy and wild.

For Meng, this means keeping your distance and giving wildlife space. “You just shouldn’t bother [wildlife] in the winter,” he said, adding that wildlife encounters with dogs can also be an issue and dog owners should be aware of what trails are open or closed to dogs and consider leashing their pets in the vicinity of known wildlife areas.

Additionally, Meng said, motorists should be aware that wildlife could cross the road at any turn in Big Sky.

Bozeman area biologist Julie Cunningham for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says there are a number of resources available online at the department website that include species-specific tips for dealing with different wildlife situations.

“Of particular note, I always like to highlight the importance of having minimal fences and wildlife-friendly fences,” she wrote in an email to EBS. “Entanglement is a terrible way for wildlife to die, and wildlife need to be able to move across the landscape.”

Cunningham said it’s also important not to feed wildlife, whether intentionally or not. Bird feeders, as just one example, can attract more than just birds, and can become a problem when moose, bears or deer start clambering onto a deck.

“Some people think they are ‘helping’ the animals by offering feed, but this is an illegal and often dangerous practice,” Cunningham said.

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