On July 15th, Montana BHA volunteers gathered to give the sagebrush steppe SW of Dillon a little love. We teamed up with the National Wildlife Federation, private landowners, and the BLM to remove a section of problematic fence along a public/private boundary. Such fencing creates a barrier for big game, especially antelope, and can lead to higher rates of mortality for nesting sage grouse. The fence will soon be replaced with a wildlife friendly fence, meaning higher off-the-ground clearance with a smooth bottom wire. This will allow wildlife to move more freely through the landscape, while still securing cattle.
After a delicious breakfast of Spanish tortilla made with piquillo peppers, homemade venison chorizo, garlic and onion, provided by volunteer Julie Mackiewicz, our group of 12 attacked a half mile section that was the poster child of bad fencing! There was five-strand barbed wire, woven wire (aka sheep fence), woven wire with two strands of barbed up top, and wooden jack fence with barbed wire and woven wire intertwined. The combination, along with some steep hills and riparian areas, made removal slow going, but the group worked hard and had the fence cleared and trailer loaded by mid afternoon.
So why were we focused on this specific part of the state?
In 2020, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) launched a three-year study called the Montana Pronghorn Movement and Population Ecology Project with the goal of identifying migration patterns, seasonal ranges, and potential barriers. In the Big Hole study area, roughly 60 pronghorn does were collared with GPS units that report hourly on their location. Data collected showed that populations of pronghorn are traveling great distances from winter range in the Horse Prairie area to summer range in the Big Hole Valley, many venturing all the way to the Mt. Haggin Wildlife Management Area, some 90+ miles away.
The study also identified more than 30 miles of fences - some 80 individual fences - that are mostly impenetrable to pronghorns, causing them to go out of their way during migration, adding more miles and burning more calories at a time of year when they need to conserve all the energy they can get. Worse, these fences are also known to harm or kill pronghorn that can get tangled up in them.
What followed was a partnership with land management agencies, NWF, The Nature Conservancy, Montana FWP, private landowners and other partners, like BHA, with a shared goal of tackling as many of these fencing issues as possible. Pictured above, volunteers getting an overview of the project from regional conservationists and BLM biologist before heading out to the worksite.
At the onset, Montana BHA pitched in financially to help secure the grant funding needed for the NWF wildlife project coordinator position to oversee this collaborative project. Then in 2021, we rolled up our sleeves and helped with the first phase of this work; and now in 2023, we’re back for more, both in June and July.
The combined efforts have removed close to 20 miles of fencing so far. "Sometimes it feels like a drop in the bucket," explained Simon Buzzard, Senior Coordinator of Wildlife Connectivity for NWF. "But you can't fill the bucket without drops."
We will be back next year to fill more of the bucket (and empty more of Horse Prairie of fencing), and we hope to see you there. In the meantime, we have other upcoming stewardship opportunities and we'd love for you to join us! Pictured above, BHA life member Dave Koeppen using his packframe for more than just elk quarters!
Thanks again to all the volunteers (Brian, Celia, John, Luke, Mike, Dave, Corey, Julie, Jeremy, Jeff, Kevin and Simon) for spending their weekend with us making a noticeable difference in sagebrush country. And a special thank you to Montana BHA board member Corey Ellis who led the Chapter’s engagement in this stewardship project from start to finish. Pictured above, the day's work loaded up on a trailer.