Ed Arnett

June 5, 2020

How Mending Fences Makes a Difference for Migrating Big Game

Upgrading wire fences with help from landowners and volunteers aids animal movement across the West

A video we posted on Instagram recently showed that just a single strand of barbed wire on a dilapidated fence was enough to stymie a six-point bull elk as it attempted to pass through. The bull hit the wire with his right front hoof, pulled his leg back, and got slightly startled at being tangled, but it managed to step away from the fence.

I’m pretty sure that old fence didn’t harm the bull or ultimately impede him getting to wherever he was going, but this is not always the case. Many of us have witnessed deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope nervously walking up and down a fence line or, worse yet, tangled up in a fence either dead or left to die. This also is a habitat connectivity issue—one that can create additional challenges for big game in areas where their migration routes are already fragmented by roads and other obstacles.

Wild critters frustrate many landowners by damaging fences, creating the extra work of mending them so that livestock does not escape. But there are alternatives for making fences more friendly to wildlife.

Barbed and Beyond

When asked about innovations of the 19th century, few people would likely name barbed wire, but its invention changed the American West almost overnight—and it has had consequences for wildlife ever since.

After the Civil War, Western rangelands were homesteaded and settled, but landowners needed a way to keep livestock within their property boundaries. This technology essentially ended the “open range” grazing era and changed the West forever.

Barbed wire is perhaps the most pervasive option in big game country, but of course it’s not the only style of fence with impacts for migrating animals. Woven wire fences are almost impossible for wildlife to pass through. When these are combined with a barbed top wire, it is a lethal and impenetrable combination considered the most detrimental to wildlife.

Photo by Texas Parks and Wildlife.
What Happens to Wildlife?

There are several rather obvious impacts of fencing on wildlife worth mentioning. First, our big game animals—like mule deer, pronghorns, and elk—did not evolve with fences across once open spaces, so traditional migration corridors of these animals have been interrupted and altered.

But animals can just jump over fences, right? Well, yes, or go under them. And most critters can clear a fence without issue. But many animals become entangled and die from either starvation, dehydration, hypothermia, or predation. Juveniles are especially vulnerable and make up a large percentage of big game animals killed by fences. Animals with horns or antlers sometimes get their headgear tangled up in fencing, and their fate may be the same as if they’d attempted to jump a fence.

It’s not just existing fencing that can cause trouble—dilapidated fences that are no longer being monitored, used, or maintained can be a real danger to critters, too.

According to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department’s “Fencing with Wildlife in Mind” brochure, fences incompatible with wildlife are those that:

  • Are too high to jump.
  • Are too low to crawl under.
  • Have wires spaced too close together.
  • Have wires that are too loose.
  • Are difficult for fleeing animals to see.
  • Create a complete movement barrier.
Photo courtesy of Wyoming Game and Fish Dept.
Where Fencing Works for Wildlife

On the other hand, strategically placed fencing can sometimes be a good thing for big game animals, because it funnels them to safety. One of the three most critical factors involved with placing an effective wildlife crossing over or under a roadway is to ensure that fencing guides the animals to the structure.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department found this out firsthand by retrofitting the fencing at an older and ineffective crossing structure on Interstate 17. Prior to the retrofit fencing project, an average of 20 elk per year collided with vehicles. After adequate fencing was installed, there was a whopping 97-percent reduction in vehicle collisions with elk.

Often, game-proof fencing, which is typically 8 feet or taller and made of woven wire, is needed to reduce damage to certain crops or other property. Such exclusion fences reduce unnecessary conflicts with humans and the need for damage control of problem animals or populations.
Mending Fences

Most state and federal agencies have guidelines for wildlife-compatible fencing, and there is certainly no shortage of recommendations available. Wildlife-friendly options should have:

  • A smooth wire at the top no higher than 42 inches from the ground—on steep slopes, pinpointing where the animal would leap from helps to determine the effective fence height.
  • A smooth wire at the bottom at least 18 inches above the ground.
  • Built with no stays on the fence and posts at least 16 feet apart.

Many landowners have stepped up to help solve fencing problems for wildlife. Ruben Vasquez, a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Wyoming, wrote about ranchers who realized that existing five- or six-wire barbed and woven wire fences prevented pronghorns, elk, and deer from moving freely across their lands. It was also expensive to continually repair fences damaged by wildlife attempting to cross.

With help from the Farm Bill’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, many landowners have been able to replace their existing fences with more wildlife-friendly versions, and this is a win-win. In 2017, Vasquez reported that 29,000 feet, or roughly five and a half miles, of problem fences were replaced with wildlife-friendly fence on just one Wyoming ranch.

Landowners can also leave certain gates open or sections of fence where wildlife readily cross during their seasonal migrations. The key, of course, is knowing precisely when and where animals move and encounter the fences. But this is a good tactic to help facilitate seasonal movements across private lands during predictable time periods.

Getting to the Other Side

Of course, there can never be too much of a good thing, and thousands of miles of dangerous fencing remains across our landscapes. Federal land management agencies need to prioritize retrofitting incompatible fences that threaten wildlife across our public lands. Landowners are doing great work to help make fences wildlife-friendly, but more resources and technical support would help expand these efforts.

Adequate, long-term funding for Farm Bill conservation programs like EQIP and other resources will be needed to help retrofit unsafe fences across the West. But volunteers can help too. Old fences need to be pulled off the land either simply to remove the hazard or before new, safer fences can be installed.

In many areas, fence removal and replacement projects can be easily tackled by conservation volunteers in an afternoon or two. Others may take more time, resources, and skilled labor to complete, but projects like this help sportsmen and women get more involved in conservation and thinking about how game species use habitat on a landscape scale. Where migration corridors are fragmented and interrupted by development and other threats, installing the right fence can be a small price to pay to help knit together these important travel routes.

 

Top photo by Idaho Game and Fish Department.

4 Responses to “How Mending Fences Makes a Difference for Migrating Big Game”

  1. Tobin Kelley

    Yes, this is great. My wife, Christine Paige, was involved in writing and editing some of the first state guides to wildlife friendly fences. She wondered at the time if the effort (and making a few thousand dollars) were going to actually make any difference. Now that the issue has been embraced by many organizations (some government agencies took a little more prompting than others) she continues to see the expansion of wildlife friendly fences continue to grow. As you said, there are still thousands of miles of poor fence, poor fence designs still getting built and unending education to go. But progress continues to be made – thanks for helping to spread the word.

  2. Melissa Warfield

    Please start building overpasses and underpasses (bridges) for the animals. By fixing wire fencing is not the safest alternative to use. Too many animals have been killed by the wire fencing or once over the wire fencing, there is a possibility the animals can get killed by fast moving vehicles. Please start thinking about the overpasses and underpasses (bridges) for animals.

  3. Christine Paige

    Thanks for writing about making fences friendlier for wildlife! I’ve been working on this issue for 12+ years, and wrote the wildlife friendly fence handbooks for Montana, Wyoming, and Alberta, which many other states have used as a foundation for their own guides. It is incredibly gratifying to see the paradigm shift in the last decade — landholders and land managers across western North America and beyond are re-thinking how we use the landscape, and are removing and modifying fences to create easier passage for wildlife. There are dozens of possible solutions for different situations. You can download a PDF of the second edition of the Wyoming Landowner’s Handbook to Fences and Wildlife here: https://wgfd.wyo.gov/WGFD/media/content/PDF/Habitat/Habitat%20Information/Grazing%20Management%20and%20Prescribed%20Burning/A-Wyoming-Landowner-s-Handbook-to-Fences-and-Wildlife_2nd-Edition_-lo-res.pdf

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How Mending Fences Makes a Difference for Migrating Big Game

Upgrading wire fences with help from landowners and volunteers aids animal movement across the West

A video we posted on Instagram recently showed that just a single strand of barbed wire on a dilapidated fence was enough to stymie a six-point bull elk as it attempted to pass through. The bull hit the wire with his right front hoof, pulled his leg back, and got slightly startled at being tangled, but it managed to step away from the fence.

I’m pretty sure that old fence didn’t harm the bull or ultimately impede him getting to wherever he was going, but this is not always the case. Many of us have witnessed deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope nervously walking up and down a fence line or, worse yet, tangled up in a fence either dead or left to die. This also is a habitat connectivity issue—one that can create additional challenges for big game in areas where their migration routes are already fragmented by roads and other obstacles.

Wild critters frustrate many landowners by damaging fences, creating the extra work of mending them so that livestock does not escape. But there are alternatives for making fences more friendly to wildlife.

Barbed and Beyond

When asked about innovations of the 19th century, few people would likely name barbed wire, but its invention changed the American West almost overnight—and it has had consequences for wildlife ever since.

After the Civil War, Western rangelands were homesteaded and settled, but landowners needed a way to keep livestock within their property boundaries. This technology essentially ended the “open range” grazing era and changed the West forever.

Barbed wire is perhaps the most pervasive option in big game country, but of course it’s not the only style of fence with impacts for migrating animals. Woven wire fences are almost impossible for wildlife to pass through. When these are combined with a barbed top wire, it is a lethal and impenetrable combination considered the most detrimental to wildlife.

Photo by Texas Parks and Wildlife.
What Happens to Wildlife?

There are several rather obvious impacts of fencing on wildlife worth mentioning. First, our big game animals—like mule deer, pronghorns, and elk—did not evolve with fences across once open spaces, so traditional migration corridors of these animals have been interrupted and altered.

But animals can just jump over fences, right? Well, yes, or go under them. And most critters can clear a fence without issue. But many animals become entangled and die from either starvation, dehydration, hypothermia, or predation. Juveniles are especially vulnerable and make up a large percentage of big game animals killed by fences. Animals with horns or antlers sometimes get their headgear tangled up in fencing, and their fate may be the same as if they’d attempted to jump a fence.

It’s not just existing fencing that can cause trouble—dilapidated fences that are no longer being monitored, used, or maintained can be a real danger to critters, too.

According to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department’s “Fencing with Wildlife in Mind” brochure, fences incompatible with wildlife are those that:

  • Are too high to jump.
  • Are too low to crawl under.
  • Have wires spaced too close together.
  • Have wires that are too loose.
  • Are difficult for fleeing animals to see.
  • Create a complete movement barrier.
Photo courtesy of Wyoming Game and Fish Dept.
Where Fencing Works for Wildlife

On the other hand, strategically placed fencing can sometimes be a good thing for big game animals, because it funnels them to safety. One of the three most critical factors involved with placing an effective wildlife crossing over or under a roadway is to ensure that fencing guides the animals to the structure.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department found this out firsthand by retrofitting the fencing at an older and ineffective crossing structure on Interstate 17. Prior to the retrofit fencing project, an average of 20 elk per year collided with vehicles. After adequate fencing was installed, there was a whopping 97-percent reduction in vehicle collisions with elk.

Often, game-proof fencing, which is typically 8 feet or taller and made of woven wire, is needed to reduce damage to certain crops or other property. Such exclusion fences reduce unnecessary conflicts with humans and the need for damage control of problem animals or populations.
Mending Fences

Most state and federal agencies have guidelines for wildlife-compatible fencing, and there is certainly no shortage of recommendations available. Wildlife-friendly options should have:

  • A smooth wire at the top no higher than 42 inches from the ground—on steep slopes, pinpointing where the animal would leap from helps to determine the effective fence height.
  • A smooth wire at the bottom at least 18 inches above the ground.
  • Built with no stays on the fence and posts at least 16 feet apart.

Many landowners have stepped up to help solve fencing problems for wildlife. Ruben Vasquez, a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Wyoming, wrote about ranchers who realized that existing five- or six-wire barbed and woven wire fences prevented pronghorns, elk, and deer from moving freely across their lands. It was also expensive to continually repair fences damaged by wildlife attempting to cross.

With help from the Farm Bill’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, many landowners have been able to replace their existing fences with more wildlife-friendly versions, and this is a win-win. In 2017, Vasquez reported that 29,000 feet, or roughly five and a half miles, of problem fences were replaced with wildlife-friendly fence on just one Wyoming ranch.

Landowners can also leave certain gates open or sections of fence where wildlife readily cross during their seasonal migrations. The key, of course, is knowing precisely when and where animals move and encounter the fences. But this is a good tactic to help facilitate seasonal movements across private lands during predictable time periods.

Getting to the Other Side

Of course, there can never be too much of a good thing, and thousands of miles of dangerous fencing remains across our landscapes. Federal land management agencies need to prioritize retrofitting incompatible fences that threaten wildlife across our public lands. Landowners are doing great work to help make fences wildlife-friendly, but more resources and technical support would help expand these efforts.

Adequate, long-term funding for Farm Bill conservation programs like EQIP and other resources will be needed to help retrofit unsafe fences across the West. But volunteers can help too. Old fences need to be pulled off the land either simply to remove the hazard or before new, safer fences can be installed.

In many areas, fence removal and replacement projects can be easily tackled by conservation volunteers in an afternoon or two. Others may take more time, resources, and skilled labor to complete, but projects like this help sportsmen and women get more involved in conservation and thinking about how game species use habitat on a landscape scale. Where migration corridors are fragmented and interrupted by development and other threats, installing the right fence can be a small price to pay to help knit together these important travel routes.

 

Top photo by Idaho Game and Fish Department.

Andrew Earl

May 28, 2020

Restoring Native Grasses Could Lessen the Plight of the Bobwhite

Why isn’t the USDA leaning more heavily on native grassland restoration to save this and other iconic species?

“I haven’t seen one of them around here in years.” Whether you’re talking to farmers or wingshooters, this statement about bobwhite quail is as familiar and repeated as the bird’s distinct whistle: bob-WHITE! bob-WHITE!

Across Texas rangelands and southeastern pine forests historically ample quail habitat has declined over the last half century. Unfortunately, the story of bobwhites—once one of the most important game species in North America—is representative of a greater issue all too common in the world of wildlife conservation. The iconic game bird has effectively been forced into a patchwork of suitable habitat, all but removing our opportunities to chase that distinct whistle across the bird’s historic range.

Ornithologists at Cornell University have labeled the bobwhite quail a common bird in steep decline, an appropriate moniker given their finding of a steady 4-percent annual population decline—that’s an 85-percent drop since 1966.

The “why” of it all is well agreed upon at this point: land conversion. The steady creep of development, monoculture cropland, edge-to-edge farming, and pesticide use has contributed to the slow-motion erosion of the diverse habitat required to sustain populations of bobwhites.

The below graph by the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative illustrates the trend.

Part of the challenge facing species recovery efforts is that gentleman bob has very particular tastes when it comes to habitat. Quail are ground-nesting birds that require a mix of seasonal vegetation. During colder months, coveys huddle in dense shrubs and grasses, and in the spring and summer, they opt to nest, forage, and brood in tall forbs and grasses that provide lush groundcover, shade, and security from predators. Quail need to feed on a diversity of seeds, fruits, and bugs in these grasses but escape to woody brush when they catch the eye of a hungry predator—all within 12 inches of the ground.

Understanding the fastidious nature of bobwhites is essential to the successful establishment of sustainable quail habitat. This has led groups like NBCI, which leads the way on bobwhite recovery, to support the adoption of native grasses into grassland restoration. In 2018, the TRCP worked with several of our partners to include official language encouraging the use of native grasses for the very first time in established Farm Bill conservation practices.

But that work is far from done. This provision was included in a Committee Report, which establishes a degree of congressional intent, but it holds little more weight than a suggestion as the U.S. Department of Agriculture moves ahead with implementation of the Farm Bill. Currently, several private land conservation programs only support the establishment of the “lowest practicable cost perennial conserving use cover crop”—whether native or non-native—which may sustain some species and benefit soil health, but is not guaranteed to provide the quality cover habitat required by bobwhite populations.

For these reasons, the TRCP was proud to join a handful of our conservation partners to become part of the Native Grasslands Alliance. Together, we’ll coordinate policy and communications efforts in support of increasing the adoption of native grasses and vegetation on both working and retired public and private lands.

The establishment of native vegetation is not only critical to the recovery of bobwhites, but also to address collapsing populations of songbirds, monarch butterflies, and other pollinators in recent years. The continued reliance upon introduced grasses in USDA programs runs counter to other ongoing efforts to restore these species. It begs the question: Is the public interest being accounted for when native grasses are forgone for the sake of economic ease?

One thing can be sure, a return to the huntable bobwhite populations of years past will not be achieved without a sea change in how American agriculture approaches grassland conservation and restoration.

Randall Williams

May 27, 2020

Revised Montana Forest Plan Would Conserve Areas Important to Hunters and Anglers

Final Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest plan includes key provisions to benefit wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation

The U.S. Forest Service released a near final land use plan that will support outdoor recreation opportunities and conserve important wild trout and big game habitat on public lands stretching across seventeen counties in central and western Montana.

When finalized, the Forest Service’s revised management plan for the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest will determine how the agency will manage approximately 2.8 million acres of public lands from the Snowies and the Highwoods to the Upper Blackfoot and the Rocky Mountain Front.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership helped activate hunters and anglers, local government officials, and other stakeholder groups to provide meaningful feedback throughout the process, which began in 2015. Those comments and other considerations have now been incorporated into the Forest Service’s draft record of decision and final environmental impact statement, one of the last steps in the planning process.

“Sportsmen and women spoke up in support of intact habitats, forest restoration and quality recreation opportunities throughout the process, and we appreciate that the Forest Service was receptive to many of our community’s requests,” said Scott Laird, Montana field representative with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Overall, the final plan will support wildlife habitat and it will provide for quality hunting and fishing in places like the Upper Blackfoot and the Big Snowies, which is good news for those of us who care about Montana’s strong outdoor traditions.”

The popular public lands in central and western Montana to which the revised plan will apply help fuel the state’s $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy, provide important wildlife habitat, and support various traditional uses of the land. These landscapes include Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Hunting Districts 293, 380, and 511, which offer some of the state’s best elk and deer hunting.

The revision process was formally initiated with a forest-wide assessment and the Forest Service published its draft plan with a number of proposed alternatives in the summer of 2018. Hunters and anglers spoke up and a new preferred alternative was developed after the public comment period, which saw the agency receive more than 1,100 comments.

“This plan will guide the management of millions of acres of public lands across a broad landscape, and we have chosen to evaluate the plan as a whole,” continued Laird. “We believe the forest service has done a good job of balancing uses and demands, and they have provided strong safeguards for wildlife habitat while managing for outdoor recreation. We thank the agency for their responsiveness to our concerns and ideas.”

How to Address a Wildlife-Vehicle Collision Hotspot

In eastern Oregon, the Burns Paiute Tribe is making roadways safer for drivers and deer 

Mule deer are declining throughout the West, in part due to reductions in habitat connectivity, and wildlife advocates and managers have been wrestling with how to respond to these population level declines.

In eastern Oregon’s Malheur River watershed, where populations have been reduced by 25-42% over 4 years, collaborative efforts led by the Burns Paiute Tribe are demonstrating how data-driven progress can be made on this issue through partnership building, sound science, and public engagement.

Game camera photo collected during the Tribe’s wildlife trail survey in the Malheur River Canyon. These deer will cross the roadway to access water and forage on the south side of US 20. Often deer will make these daily migrations to access resources. In areas without passage options this increases their risk of collision with vehicles substantially.

 

Within the Malheur River canyon, US Highway 20 is a well-known hotspot for wildlife-vehicle collisions. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has identified this as one of the highest-density mule deer winter ranges in the state, and attempts by wildlife to cross the highway as they move between seasonal habitats to access resources often result in accidents that pose a major threat to human safety, ecosystem connectivity, and wildlife conservation.

In fact, between 3-6% of Oregon’s total recorded deer-vehicle collisions each year occur between mileposts 200 and 205 in the Malheur River canyon. This level of mortality, particularly occurring in early winter and spring, has significant implications for the sustainability of deer populations that use the area for winter range and fawning grounds.

The most dangerous wildlife-vehicle collision corner in the Malheur River canyon (based on ODOT wildlife mortality data).

 

To address this challenge in what is an important part of their aboriginal homeland, the Burns Paiute Tribe is leading a comprehensive effort to study and reduce the habitat fragmentation caused by the development of Highway 20. Healthy populations of mule deer are important to the Tribe, which manages a Wildlife Mitigation Site that is bisected by the highway.

In 2019, the Tribe secured Bureau of Indian Affairs funding to work with multiple state, federal, and public partners to identify mitigation measures that would improve habitat connectivity along Highway 20.

Using data supplied by the Oregon Department of transportation, the Tribe’s analysis estimated that costs of deer-vehicle collisions alone along a 13-mile stretch of Highway 20 exceed $1 million annually. In addition, the Tribe, ODFW and ODOT have used GPS collars, trail cameras, and road-kill surveys to collect data on wildlife habitat use and hotspots for wildlife-vehicle collisions. Using geospatial analysis of wildlife crossing areas the Tribe has identified existing structures that could or may already be used by mule deer as passage for habitat connectivity.

Click here or on the screenshot below to view to experience a 4-year journey through the lives of 29 mule deer that provided GPS locations for the Tribe’s monitoring efforts. Significantly, 32% of all recorded mule deer locations were within 500 meters of US 20, which suggests that these animals are highly susceptible to the dangers posed by vehicles on the highway.

This interactive GIS-based map journal takes you on a 4-year journey through the lives of 29 mule deer wintering on the Burns Paiute Tribe’s Jonesboro Ranch.

 

Moving forward, the Tribe will host multiple public meetings to develop a multi-species connectivity assessment and identify remediation measures to address the challenges and limitations in the built environment. Ultimately this process will develop functional solutions that improve wildlife and habitat connectivity through the development of safe wildlife crossings in the Malheur River canyon.

Burns Paiute Tribal employee collecting data for passage assessment study.

 

Both Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Oregon Department of Transportation have committed to this project and the focal area has been included in Oregon’s 2019 Action Plan for Implementation of Secretarial Order 3362 on big game migration.  

Meetings will be open to the public and we welcome the input and support of sportsmen and women as these solutions are developed. 

 

About the Author: 

Calla R. Hagle is the Natural Resources Director for the Burns Paiute Tribe.  She received a Bachelor’s of Wildlife Science at the University of Idaho and a Master’s in Wildlife Biology from Eastern Washington University. She’s been working for the Burns Paiute Tribe since March 2016. Her research background is in ungulate (elk and deer) resource use. While working for various agencies and the Tribe, she has worked on a wide breadth of habitat restoration projects and conservation planning. 

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