WHERE THE PRONGHORN ROAM FREE: REOPENING MIGRATION ROUTES IN SOUTHWEST MONTANA
Written By: Josh Ziegler
At 5:30 a.m., six of us gathered in the parking lot of Stone Glacier’s Bozeman location. In relative silence, we dumped water bottles and lunches into truck bed coolers, grabbed work gloves, ate donut holes, and began the 140-mile trek to Montana’s Big Hole Valley. The day’s focus centered on the removal of antiquated barbed wire webbed across an area near Clark Canyon Reservoir—fencing which has significantly hindered migration routes and effectively stonewalled swaths of antelope from accessing their wintering grounds.
I jumped in the truck with General Manager, Taylor D’Agostino, and Operations Manager, Colby Adamek. As we drove into the early-morning, straws of tangerine light began to cast across the valley floor. And as asphalt hummed beneath the truck’s tires, and minutes became miles, we collectively watched a smoke-saddled horizon develop into focus. The Bridger, Gallatin, and Tobacco Root ranges sat veiled beneath opaque smog, the result of a (then) 2,400-acre fire undulating in nearby Alder Creek. The haze rendered the peaks featureless which made them appear to be cardboard cutouts— prop mountains strategically placed for the filming of some sort Spaghetti Western, one where Clint Eastwood’s revolver bleeds gun smoke into pine smoke.
“They can’t jump fences,” says Taylor as we pulled up to the worksite. I’m unsure why an animal’s inability to jump is a major issue but remain silent, afraid I’ll expose my ignorance in front of two seasoned hunters. We unload from the truck and are greeted by Simon Buzzard, a Wildlife Migration Field Associate at The National Wildlife Federation, whose role is to work in-step with private landowners, volunteers, and biologists as they teardown sections of fencing which inhibit access to key migration corridors. The aim is to then replace what was once a barrier with permeable fencing conducive to wildlife fluidity, as well as livestock confinement. To help us understand the necessity of the project, Buzzard lays two laminated images atop the hood of his truck. The first depicts two antelope peering through a fence line, searching for an escape point. The back of one animal’s hide appears to have been unzipped from neck to tail. The hair is gone, exposing deep lacerations and filleted meat. The second image is similar: nude skin, mangled chucks of muscle, black lines of dried blood. They’ve been skinned alive. “We’re finding it’s (fencing) creating higher predation rates; they (pronghorn) get stuck on the fences, and coyotes come pick them off. So our goal is to focus on opening migration routes with wildlife-friendly fences so they can complete their migration,” says Adam Braddock, a wildlife and fisheries biologist, as the grisly pictures are handed back to Buzzard.
“We’re prioritizing fences based on movement, and we’re seeing interactions between movement and fence type. We’ll check where they’re hung up, and sure enough it’s a woven fence they can’t get through, or there’s only one spot where they can get under,” says Buzzard in reference to the 77 female pronghorn who were equipped with GPS collars back in January of 2020. Of that original number, only 57 are currently being monitored (seventeen have died and three collars malfunctioned). “This process is kind of in its infancy in the sense that we’re just looking at the data to inform us of where to go. We want to prioritize the fences that seem the most biologically relevant.” As Buzzard continues to prep us, we grab assorted tools, gloves, and water bottles from a table hidden beneath an instant gazebo. Someone suddenly snaps a pair of heavy hedge clippers from behind the pack. “Well, Phil, ya said you didn’t want to have kids, right?” Phil, a retired fishing guide, Army Veteran, and current Stone Glacier comedian, can’t help but laugh.
Hired in March of 2021, Buzzard is on the first of a three-year grant, one that stems from Secretarial Order 3362. The order—signed by former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, in February of 2018—provides funding to eleven western states in order to “improve the quality of big-game winter range and migration habitat.” The order goes on to state that “through scientific endeavors and land management actions, wildlife such as Elk (elk), Mule Deer (deer), Pronghorn Antelope (pronghorn), and a host of other species will benefit.” Despite federal aid, this task requires all hands on deck in the form of volunteers and financial donors. Organizations such as 2% for Conservation have stepped-in to aid in pronghorn habitat restoration. ”It’s a grant that requires a 1:1 match of non-federal dollars. So 2% for Conservation got involved to help fill that match requirement by getting its members involved via time and/or financial contribution to modify and remove fences for pronghorn movement, “said Buzzard in a later interview. From my observation, folks are beginning to volunteer their time. Nate Meyer, a 2% Committee Member, flew in from Pennsylvania to tear down fencing for his only two days in Montana. When asked why, he stated “I don’t know what it was, but I felt drawn to help out with boots on the ground. I could have easily donated money, but nothing beats hands-on work.”
As we grow accustomed to our roles, fence begins to fall at a rapid pace. Some cut away plumes of sagebrush from barbed wire. Others pull staples, another pulls posts, and when we get to quitting time over a mile of fencing has vanished from the dry soil. But as we stare out into that mile of newly naked plains, it feels almost like an impossible task. Montana has more miles of fence than it does interstate. By the 1890’s, the boundaries of U.S. ranches were almost entirely encased by wire walls. The demarcation of land ownership, as well as the confinement of livestock, soon necessitated barriers which let nothing in and nothing out, and the west’s vast landscape fractured into an endless checkerboard of private and public land. To some, it might feel hopeless. However, to Buzzard, the goal is ever evolving: “the end game here is to hopefully show how adaptive management can increase connectivity for big game species like pronghorn. We’re collaborating with Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks on their pronghorn movement and population study to identify barriers to movement and then going out on the ground and making fences more wildlife-friendly in key areas. Within five years, our hope is that the major pinch points along the 100-mile pronghorn migration between the Big Hole and Horse Prairie have been mitigated. Within 10 years, hopefully we’ve scaled up the project to other key areas across Montana and even into Idaho. In the process, we plan to involve hundreds of volunteers who will get a chance to get out on the landscape and contribute, thereby gaining more knowledge and perspective on wildlife migrations. At the same time, we’re building relationships with landowners to create solutions for wildlife that also work for their needs as ranchers. This is an iterative process to make the landscape more permeable to wildlife movement so that we can maintain and restore big game migrations long into the future. In the process, we’ll see how animals react to the modifications and changes, and adjust our tactics as we go.”
*If you’d like to participate in fence modifications and removal for pronghorn in southwest Montana, of if you’d like to donate to this project, you can contact Simon directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author: Josh Ziegler is an outdoor writer and full time fishing guide. He divides his time between the waters of Montana and Washington state.