RAWLINS — One of the strangest sights for many visitors to the West’s wide-open spaces is the sight of an antelope crawling under a fence. As nearly every animal jumps fences, the sight may be nearly inconceivable for those unfamiliar with the animal.
While watching a herd of pronghorn scurry under a fence is certainly an entertaining sight, their method of crossing leaves them vulnerable to complete isolation stemming from a single fence. At the same time, antelope attempting to leap the fence often results in tangled pronghorn slowing dying of exposure.
With a recent donation from Sinclair of $10,000, in addition to more than $107,000 in funds, the Bureau of Land Management hopes to change this by rebuilding fences for more than eight miles across 23 locations in Carbon County.
The survey leading to these changes collared its first animals in 2014, but the first tentative steps toward the survey began in 2005.
The survey showed the main factor affecting pronghorn to be fences, as the county’s hundreds of miles of them isolated and separated populations that often wander within a few feet of each other, each staring out from the other side.
One collared antelope spent its entire life in a fenced one-mile section of Carbon County, while other surveyed pronghorn crossed boundaries on a handful of occasions throughout their lifetime.
With this data in mind, Mary Read, wildlife biologist at the BLM, and colleagues planned how best to combat the limited migration and potentially limited genetic diversity among the pronghorn of eastern Carbon County.
The fences identified as major blocks to pronghorn were sheep-proof fences built during Carbon County’s era of dominance over the wool market. As the fences’ main goal was to keep sheep from crawling pasture to pasture without the shepherd’s knowledge, the bottom two feet are made of wire mesh, making antelope’s hopes of cross-fence transit nearly impossible.
Thus, the data showed fences to be the main issue limiting antelope movement, an issue easily fixed by changing fence type at areas with high traffic.
Last year saw 13.8 miles in 32 locations converted to new fence types, requiring more than $161,000 to complete.
According to Dennis Carpenter, field manager for the Rawlins Field Office, these altered fences will not be harmful to current ranchers as sheep grazing areas have changed over the decades and sheep-herding techniques have shifted.
While the areas surveyed were once hubs of sheep herding, the swaths of grass and sagebrush have gradually become an area used more for cattle grazing, requiring much less protection against under-fence escape attempts.
At the same time, sheep herding has become a much more involved activity than when the fences were first constructed in the 1930s. According to Carpenter, shepherds now take a much more involved role in their sheep’s daily grazing, which allows the fences to be far less secure than the days of free-range sheep.
While the fence improvement plan was satisfactory to all parties involved, the main issue was how to fund the extensive changes proposed.
“Funding is always a challenge,” said Carpenter.
Carpenter went on to say this was their biggest challenge for implementation of the project in addition to simply studying the issue. According to Carpenter, without the generosity from Sinclair and other organizations, the scale and potential impact of the project would be far more limited.
“The partnerships are great,” said Carpenter.
With funds from these partnerships totaling $57,000 in addition to the BLM’s funds of $60,000, the project should be able to greatly open pronghorn range across Carbon County.
Using the donations of Sinclair and several other companies in addition to federal funds, BLM plans to purchase material as well as hire a contractor. According to Read, they hope bulk purchasing this summer will likely generate discounts, allowing them to further expand their efforts to improve pronghorn movement.