On June 3rd, 2023, despite a dismal weather forecast, 23 conservationists showed up to pull more than a mile of old woven and barbed wire fencing in SW Montana.
BHA members and volunteers from all over the state met up with Simon Buzzard from the National Wildlife Federation who provided some conservation history and project goals before we loaded up and drove towards the work site, a region called Horse Prairie.
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.
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.
At the onset, Montana BHA pitched in $2,500 to help secure the grant funding needed for the NWF wildlife project coordinator position to oversee this huge collaborative project (that’s Simon). Then in 2021, we rolled up our sleeves and helped with the first phase of this project; and now in 2023, we’re back for more.
"Adventure begins where the road ends" is one of BHA’s slogans, but in this case, things got a little adventurous before we even left our trucks. On the way to the project site, we had to detour a bit because of wet roads. We then hiked in about a mile to the project site and got to work, but not before being treated to sightings of elk and pronghorn, along with sage grouse (all would benefit from the day's work).
Some of us popped fence strands from wooden posts, others pulled t-posts, and a few used loppers and chainsaws to free the woven sheep fence from the sagebrush. Once cleared, we rolled the top strand barbed wire, folded the woven wire, piled the posts and looked back at our work: over a mile of a fence-free prairie for pronghorn and other wildlife to traverse.
New wildlife-friendly fencing will be installed in some areas at a later date so ranchers can continue their operations without hindering wildlife movements.
From there, we returned to the campsite (many volunteers camped out Friday and Saturday nights) and enjoyed some burgers and brats cooked up by Montana BHA board member Anne Jolliff.
Thanks again to all the volunteers for spending their weekend with us making a noticeable difference in sagebrush country.