Drink. Eat. Keep watch.
You’d be forgiven for boiling down pronghorn behavior as such. If you observe their daily samba across the New Mexico plains they always seem to be partaking in one of these activities, especially the watching. The “samba” itself would be underappreciated in this analysis, however, as pronghorn herds movement across the landscape is actually a complex behavior designed to follow rainfall, find the best cover and forage and generally follow learned migration routes. GPS-collar studies demonstrate that pronghorn retain strong working memory of the spatial landscape, even regularly returning to their own birthing grounds throughout their lives. The herds also need to be able move across the landscape to employ one of their best defensive tools – speed. In order to ‘be pronghorn’, in essence, these animals need the ability to migrate freely on a daily and seasonal basis.
Our land management agencies in New Mexico have become increasingly proactive in protecting and restoring wildlife migration corridors, but they can’t do it alone. Such is the case in northeastern New Mexico, where shortgrass prairie on the edge of historic Dust Bowl country provides prime pronghorn habitat and there’s a lot of work yet to be done. The area is also one with a long history of private cattle operations, and in addition to grazing on private inholdings the Kiowa and rita Blanca National Grassland works with local ranchers to provide grazing leases for public land. Unfortunately, fencing installed to separate out grazing leases has also posed a significant barrier to pronghorn movement. New fences take pronghorn’s aversion to leaping into account by installing a smooth bottom wire for them to slip under; but this still leaves hundreds of miles of old fencing in need of retrofitting.
In 2023 New Mexico Backcountry Hunters & Anglers had the pleasure of teaming up with United States Forest Service biologists to go about the work of retrofitting the fences out on the National Grassland for a third straight year. It’s always fun to drop into the small town of Roy, out where the plains country meets the Canadian River Canyon, and help out with some on-the-ground conservation work. Every year a diverse group of sportsmen and women from across the state have shown up to fix these fences on behalf of the pronghorn herd, and with the help of a grant through the National Forest Foundation's Matching Awards Program we’ve managed to expand this work to include installing exclusionary fencing for important pronghorn water sources. This work has been made possible due to the proactive efforts of biologists working to manage different uses of the grassland ecosystem, as well as the dedicated volunteers willing to make long drives just to spend their weekend walking fence lines with a pair of pliers on behalf of New Mexico’s wildlife.
Each year we also camp out as a group out by the canyon. The project in general has become a time to rendezvous with friends and meet new folks. New Mexico hunters come from a broad range of backgrounds, making camp an interesting and unpredictable place. In 2023,a strong shared interest in New Mexico history came to the fore, with some strikingly competent discussions of the US Territorial era. One historic account even took musical form! ‘Taos Lightning’ by Bard Edrington, which is worth looking up. No formal competition was held to evaluate the various strong potluck contributions, since I’m writing the recap I’m retroactively awarding the honor of ‘best plate’ to Luis and his youngster Joaquín for their oryx red chile.
This has turned into an annual project for New Mexico BHA, and this year we really expanded our year-over-year conservation impact. This year five field teams confirmed the height of or modified 24.9 miles of fence and did 0.2 miles of exclosure work where the bottom two barbed wires of a 5-wire fence were replaced with a smooth wire. All in all, this effectively improved 10,292 ac or 16.08 square miles of pronghorn habitat. Better yet, our neighboring BHA compadres in Texas have replicated this project on their side of the Grasslands - the Rita Blanca. Collectively our New Mexico and Texas teams have modified or verified 74.6 miles of fenceline, converted 1.7 miles of barbed wire fence to a smooth bottom wire, removed huge amounts of tumbleweeds from fenceline crossings and improved 34,828.5 acres or 54.38 square miles of habitat. This year the New Mexico team also installed nine signs to deter illegal off-road use and protect important aquatic and prairie habitat.
Both projects were initiated after GPS-collar data demonstrated the effect of the current fencing on pronghorn migration. As it turns out a lot of valuable conservation projects have pretty simple solutions, and lack mostly in some time and labor to execute. We’re happy to tackle this one, and look forward to returning to the prairie in the years to come to help those pronghorn samba across the plains!
Stay tuned for upcoming opportunities to make a lasting impact on the shortgrass prairie by visiting our Upcoming Events page here. You can also still join us for the Texas portion of this project June 2-4 in the Rita Blanca National Grasslands but be sure to RSVP by May 30.