It’s always shocking when you find some wonderful piece of public land that’s been sitting under your nose for years. Many New Mexican’s are likely to find themselves in this condition if they have not yet taken the time to appreciate our state’s eastern grasslands. In the northeast, in particular, a gently rolling landscape covered only in short grass prairie – and dotted with pronghorn and cattle – is interrupted by the Canadian River Canyon creating a dynamic and beautiful landscape. This area, around Roy, New Mexico, is sparsely populated. Those that do live here do a lot of ranching, with the Dust Bowl still figuring prominently into their desire not to over-utilize the landscape. This intention is shared by the Kiowa National Grasslands (KNG), a public land system covering 136,500 acres of prairie in the area. This land is, of course, open to the public land hunter or explorer, while the KNG also works with ranchers to allow the parcels to be sustainably grazed for a fee.
The group at NMBHA first developed a particular interest in this area as a result of university funded wildlife research. Graduate students radio-collared and studied the migration patterns of pronghorn antelope in the area, and came to conclude that ranching fences greatly impeded pronghorn movement. Pronghorn are a prairie adapted species and loathe to jump under any circumstances. They can scoot under fencing easily, but only if the bottom fence wire is raised to a certain height and/or does not have barbs on it. The researchers determined that some simple fence modifications done along every ¼ mile or so of fencing would allow pronghorn to effectively migrate across the prairie in pursuit of the various resources they may need. The problem? Hundreds of miles of fencing across the landscape and no available manpower to get the job done. When I was tasked with organizing a group of NMBHA members to help with this job, I didn’t know what to expect. It’s a distant drive for most members, and to an area that few are likely to hunt on a regular basis. But a few conversations with United States Forest Service staff (the KNG is part of the USFS), and we resolved to give it a go.
As it turned out, I should have known better than to underestimate the NMBHA membership. On a Friday evening in the spring of 2021, pickup trucks, camping trailers, and at least one decked out van began to file into the Mills Canyon campground from all over the state to help get the work done. In total some three dozen volunteers showed up, all to lend of hand for a herd of pronghorn they rarely see and may never hunt. Our group came from a wide range of backgrounds and experience levels, with kiddos and a few dogs along for the ride. And because of these folks, the project couldn’t have been a bigger success. An array of USFS staff greeted us with informative talks in the evenings, with Saturday being the primary workday. We broke up into half a dozen teams spread across the prairie, and after the days work we had newly opened up 8,891 acres to effective pronghorn migration.
The workday gave everyone a chance to get to know their fellow BHA members a lot better, and we continued this activity Saturday evening as we all grilled out together. This was the best time ever. Elk, barbary sheep, and pronghorn were on the grill, enjoyed over a heck of a lot of hunting stories. Food in hand, we even grouped around a fire to gather perspective on some of the ‘meatier’ (hehe) issues BHA had on their ‘plate’ (ahahaha!) in the course of the past year. This was followed by general celebrating. If memory serves, members Felix, Stephanie, and Chuck were still in the running for the endurance award when I turned in (way to make the board proud!). The next morning before closing up the event many of us explored the nearby Mills Canyon on our own time, a gorgeous area with historic ruins – as well as a wildly gobbling jake during my visit.
The experience merits a few additional reflections. In addition to the great BHA members and USFS staff on the project, the town of Roy was awesome to us during the brief visit. In trying to arrange breakfast and lunch for the crew I phoned Ma Sally’s, one of the only vendors in town. The proprietor said she would not be able to do it, but was kind enough to have her friend – lets say, Maggie – call me back and see if it could be arranged. Maggie then passed me to Sarah, who passed me to another person and so on. I’m not sure I saw half a dozen houses in Roy, leading me to believe a big chunk of the populace was in on trying to get us fed. Ultimately the Flowers family, local ranchers, made a huge sacrifice of time and effort to get us well taken care, and were also nice enough to check in on as at camp here and there.
Lastly, it’s projects like this that add some additional meaning to hunting and angling. Stakeholders should be brought together to enact conservation solutions, and getting out there for some no-questions-asked service once in a while can be a fun thing to do. Especially when there’s a party after. And, In this case, everyone involved made the project such a big success that we’re going back for more!
Looking to build on and expand our conservation work from last year, we’ll be headed back out for the weekend of April 8th-10th, 2022. Space is limited and you won’t want to miss it, so I hope you can snag a spot today and come on out to the prairie with us for some more action this spring.
Click here to learn more or RSVP for our 2nd Annual Kiowa National Grasslands Fencing Project and Chapter Campout.