Idaho stakeholders come together to take down dated fences
Impregnable for everything larger than a cottontail, the woven wire fence has stood for decades along Grassy Ridge Road on the Sand Creek winter range in eastern Idaho.
Windblown sand buries the bottom strand in spots, making the structure even more rigid than it was when first installed. Three feet up, parallel strands of barbed wire stretch above a wire netting barrier, making it impossible for a grown man to straddle. The combined effect is perfect for keeping all manner of livestock, from sheep to cattle, off the adjacent county road and on the private property or public land grazing allotments where they belong.
But it also makes life more difficult for the area’s wildlife. Pronghorn antelope no longer migrate to this corner of the desert. Elk still move in and out, as do mule deer, which flock to the area around the Grassy Ridge Road by the thousands. But even for these larger ungulates, the fence has its consequences. The carcass of a deer, leg tangled in wire from a poorly calculated jump, is a common sight for travelers along the road.
“It is pretty tough for animals to cross this,” said Gerren Steel, Idaho Department of Fish and Game volunteer coordinator.
The Grassy Ridge Road fence, like miles and miles of similar structures across the West, was built at a time when its effects on wildlife movement were not well understood, let alone considered. Today, however, priorities have shifted, and the fence is getting a facelift. It is being retrofitted with a wildlife-friendly design by a group of unlikely allies working to save the Sand Creek winter range from a variety of threats.
Roughly 8,500 deer, elk, moose, and pronghorns spend the winter on the Sand Creek desert, which sits between the towns of St. Anthony and Dubois in eastern Idaho’s Fremont and Clark counties. The winter range is a 500,000-acre patchwork of Bureau of Land Management public lands, state endowment lands managed by the Idaho Department of Lands, deeded Idaho Fish and Game Lands, and private property.
Sand Creek is one of the last best bastions of sagebrush steppe in eastern Idaho, lush with sagebrush, bitterbrush, chokecherry, junipers, and rabbitbrush. Its quality, however, is being diminished slowly and surely. On the eastern boundary, human development encroaches in the form of platted subdivisions. To the west, the 2018 Grassy Ridge wildfire burnt a quarter of the winter range, robbing animals of forage and cover. And across the desert, motorized recreationists carelessly punch illegal routes across the sage, further fragmenting the habitat that is the foundation of this famed winter range.
There is hope, however, for this landscape and the big game herds that depend on it. State and federal agencies—including the BLM, IDFG, IDL, Natural Resource Conservation Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—along with conservationists, sportsmen and sportswomen, and private landowners are working together to sustainably manage this important habitat. Over the past three years, the Sand Creek collaborative has worked collectively to design and build firebreaks to protect the remaining healthy winter range from the threat of outsized wildfires brought on by climate change. The group has also designed and implemented vegetation treatments to promote livestock forage and diversify the age structure of sagebrush stands. The goals of their collaboration are preventing large wildfires, improving wildlife habitat, and providing for a working landscape.
Today, the group’s conservation work comes in the form of fixing a fence in the heart of the winter range.
Steel, from Fish and Game, and habitat biologist Tim Swearingen leapfrog each other along the fence line, separating the barbed wire and net wire fence from the posts that hold it tight. It is slow work as they cut the fencing away from the posts and lay it on the ground. Afterwards, a USFWS partner biologist utilizes a skid steer equipped with a mounted fence roller to collect the downed fence.
The posts will remain where they are, and a new wildlife-friendly fence will replace the old barbed and woven wire. A new bottom wire—smooth, not barbed—will be 16 inches off the ground. The wider gap between the fence bottom and the ground will keep livestock where they should be, while providing the opportunity for pronghorns, mule deer fawns, and elk calves to slide underneath, hopefully unharmed. On the other end, the top wire of the fence will be 42 inches off the ground, again still tall enough to contain livestock while making it easier for deer and elk to jump the barrier.
Swearingen hopes to take down and replace four miles of fence this fall. IDFG will provide the labor, using a cadre of volunteers. USFWS will contribute fence removal expertise and contracting oversight, and the NRCS is footing the bill for the materials. There is no cost to private landowners and public land grazers, but the benefits to all will be obvious.
Hundreds of miles of fence still remain, but Swearingen is happy with the day’s progress.
“We are making the range more wildlife-friendly, slowly and surely,” he said.