By Hunter VanDonsel
My year-old yellow lab, Fletcher, struggles to understand that he should show some caution when navigating through and underneath fences. Typically, he hits that bottom wire going 100 mph and you can hear an audible twang as he flies underneath. I am always concerned that he will end up injuring himself on the barbed wire that is typical where we hunt in north-central Montana. He has come back from hunts with a couple minor cuts and scrapes from that sharp and often low-to-the-ground bottom wire, luckily nothing more serious!
Pronghorn, deer, and other wildlife must also navigate these fences in similar ways, although they seem to show more caution than my excited bird dog. Deer often are seen jumping fences when they come across them yet, pronghorn almost always go underneath. I have seen several pronghorns with an evident strip of bare hide down their spine, indicating that crossing under a fence went poorly. Each time they go to navigate a fence it represents a calculated risk they must take, and this can be important knowing that pronghorn in Montana can migrate over 500 miles.
To help facilitate wildlife movements and keep migrations intact, conservationists and landowners are modifying their fences to be more wildlife friendly. For pronghorn, this typically means raising the bottom wire to 18”, utilizing smooth wire where possible, and leaving gates open when cows aren’t present. To date, Pheasants Forever has worked with partners and landowners to modify over 300 miles of fence in north-central Montana. This modified fence allows pronghorn to complete migrations that are critical to their population survival and for other wildlife to access available habitat; as an ancillary benefit my enthusiastic lab, Fletcher, can slip under the fences with ease!
Landowners are often more than willing to modify their fences as it results in less maintenance from broken wires from wildlife crossings and many landowners are wildlife enthusiasts as well. Typically, modifying fences are not the only pieces of a project with a landowner. Often, we help create grazing management plans, find cost-share for watering systems, and other conservation practices. All of these projects are aimed at creating better habitat and better populations of big game species. Yet, the conservation benefits don’t stop there. In the areas we’ve focused on big game migration, I’ve found some of the best sharptail grouse and sage grouse hunting opportunities available. Improving management of grasslands and keeping native landscapes intact through all these efforts, results in some amazing upland bird habitat.
Due to the success of these projects and intense interest from conservation groups and landowners for big game migration projects, Pheasants Forever is expanding our efforts. We have pulled together partners and local communities in north-central Montana, leveraging $6.4 million that will be matched by an additional $6.4 million through the USDA-NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Nearly $13 million will go toward expanding our footprint of big game habitat improvement in Montana. Projects will improve grazing systems, restore grasslands, keep grasslands intact, and modify fences to be wildlife friendly. Although targeted on big game improvements, implementation will improve habitat for upland birds. This work at a landscape-scale will have big outcomes for wildlife.
Fletcher and I recently took a day off work to go “tour” a habitat project with a shotgun in hand. This project had a couple miles of wildlife friendly fence as a component in addition to other conservation practices. We put up a couple of sharp-tails and a pheasant, an amazing day of hunting. Halfway through the hunt, as we worked through a field on the edge of a cross fence, I noticed fletcher zooming back and forth under the fence like it wasn’t even there. This was one of the fences we modified with a smooth bottom wire at 18”. I couldn’t believe the difference it made for Fletcher’s ability to make it under the fence safely. As we finished the hunt, I couldn’t help but be excited for the improvements we made for habitat on that property, how wildlife will be able to move more freely across it, and that my dog now has safer passage. Thanks to members and volunteers supporting Pheasants Forever, we can make these differences on the landscape. So, next time you are out hunting in Montana and notice a fence with a raised bottom wire or smooth bottom wire, be sure to thank that landowner for their wildlife – and bird dog-friendly – fencing!
Hunter VanDonsel is Pheasant Forever's Montana & Wyoming State Coordinator.