A hailstorm that flattened crops, broke windows and wrecked roofs and vehicles throughout the Yellowstone County area on Sunday also killed and maimed more than 11,000 waterfowl and wetland birds at the Big Lake Wildlife Management Area west of Molt.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologists who visited the lake this week picked up dead ducks and shorebirds with broken wings, smashed skulls, internal damage and other injuries consistent with massive blunt-force trauma. They reported thousands of additional dead or badly injured waterfowl and wetland birds in and around the lake.
A neighboring landowner reported baseball-sized hail that broke windows in the area on Sunday evening. Local weather reports said Molt and Rapelje suffered 2-inch hail propelled by a 70 mph wind.
FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh estimated that 20 to 30 percent of the birds at the lake were killed or injured. Of the birds that are still alive, Paugh estimated that 5% of the ducks on the lake and 30% to 40% of living pelicans and cormorants show some sign of injury or impaired movement — mostly broken wings and broken wing feathers.
FWP’s Big Lake WMA features a shallow, often-seasonal lake and wetland that are nesting areas for dozens of species of ducks, Canada geese, double-crested cormorants, shorebirds, gulls, pelicans and other waterfowl. Because of wet weather this past spring the lake filled and currently covers around 4,000 acres.
Paugh and wildlife research specialist Jay Watson were back at the lake later this week to continue their survey of the damage to birds and try to assess the potential for additional problems.
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Paugh said his scientific estimates show that the hailstorm killed or badly injured between 11,000 and 13,000 waterfowl and shorebirds, some of which still are alive but will not survive their injuries from the storm. Most of the dead birds have blown ashore.
Among future concerns is the possibility that disease — including botulism — caused by rotting carcasses could further devastate the bird populations. FWP will continue to monitor that situation.
“On a positive note,” Paugh said, “the lake is still covered with waterfowl that are alive and healthy. Life will go on.”