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In rewilding a pocket of pristine antelope habitat, volunteers turn to fence removal

Richard Bednarski
Richard Bednarski
Environment
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For nearly a decade, as the high desert sun bore down across a wide expanse of rolling hills, deep canyons and wide valleys within the remote Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, volunteers have labored within a maze of sagebrush to remove large stretches of barbed wire fence. 

Fences, despite having become a common part of the western landscape, have long posed a risk to wildlife. For pronghorn who are built for speed, fences shrink their extensive habitat and can be fatal when animals try to cross. But volunteers have started to make it possible for nearly 2,000 pronghorn antelope to roam on roughly 1,000 square miles of fence-free habitat. 

More than 300 hundred miles of fence has been removed, and volunteers are hiking deeper into the backcountry, looking to remove even more fences in the refuge along the border of northwestern Nevada. With this work, the effort is finally nearing the end.

The land that includes the refuge has been occupied by pronghorn for an estimated 20 million years. The landscape is composed predominantly of basalt lava flows that created expansive tables and steep canyons, along with rolling plains — important habitat for pronghorn antelope. 

Humans have called this sagebrush ecosystem home for thousands of years. The refuge lies on the homelands of the Numu, or the Northern Paiute. The Summit Lake Paiute Tribe’s land is nearby. Tucked within the ancient lava flows are petroglyphs, spear points and other evidence that Indigenous people have long held a deep reverence for this landscape.

But over the past 150 years, the area’s wildlife has faced numerous threats from white settlers. Over the decades and continuing to today, concerned biologists and volunteers have worked to reverse the habitat loss and the steep population declines of the pronghorn antelope. 

Taking out fences and other projects, such as the removal of non-functioning water troughs, are recent examples of those conservation efforts. These projects are not only aimed at pronghorn antelope, but also some of the other 270 animal species that live there, including bighorn sheep, American pika, mountain lion, mule deer, sage grouse and birds of prey. 

Yet the pronghorn antelope is especially important. Biologists consider it an indicator species for ecosystem health, largely because of their migratory habits and far-reaching range. 

To many who have worked on these conservation projects, the refuge stands out for its expansive habitat, solitude, and dark night sky, or what Carissa Callison, a wildlife biologist for the refuge, describes as “this feeling of almost being transported back in time.” 

A steep population decline

In the 1800s, white settlers flooded the region, bringing cattle, horses and barbed wire fences that stretched for miles, separating the landscape from itself and the pronghorn from each other.

Pronghorn, mule deer and other species that rely on wide-open spaces are challenged when they come across a fence. This unnatural object fragments their habitat, a partitioning that has led to a shrinking of herd sizes. 

Before the 1800s, there were an estimated 40 million pronghorn throughout North America. By the early 1900s, the population had plummeted to fewer than 20,000 across the entire continent, according to the Boone and Crockett Club, the country’s oldest wildlife and conservation organization.

In 1920, E.R. Sans, a biologist working for what would eventually become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was alarmed by this steep population decline and became a staunch advocate for habitat preservation. His work led to regulations to stymie overhunting. In the 1920s, the Audubon Society and the Boone and Crockett Club pooled their resources and began purchasing land in the area.  

In 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed an executive order which officially set aside almost 35,000 acres in this remote region of Nevada as a refuge for the pronghorn. At lightning speed, groups began purchasing and adding acres to the range, hoping to expand habitat for the prized pronghorn antelope. 

A notable member of the Boone and Crockett Club was Charles Sheldon, an engineer who amassed wealth through mining investments. After retiring at the age of 36, he turned his focus to adventure, research and hunting. Although he is most known as the advocate behind the creation of Denali National Park, his love for wildlife landed his name on the antelope preserve.

In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would add to the refuge and create the Sheldon Antelope Range, protecting about 540,000 acres. In 1976, the antelope range and refuge was combined, establishing the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. 

The executive orders increased protection to the nearby Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, creating nearly one million acres of habitat protection for the pronghorn antelope. 

“Pronghorn are one of the iconic species of the sagebrush sea,” Callison said. “They are a native species who are unique [and] are very well adapted to this environment.”

A map showing the progression of fence removal at the refuge. (Credit: Richard Bednarski. Shapefiles provided by Jake Kastner/Friends of Nevada Wilderness)

‘Last species in their family’

Pronghorn antelope, Antilocapra americana, are a graceful animal.

Females weigh about 90 to 100 pounds and males average about 120 pounds. Standing just shy of three and half feet at the shoulder, pronghorn are a scant five-feet long. Their coats are light brown with notable white markings along the face, neck, belly and rump. 

The definitive feature are the pronged horns. Unlike ungulates which have antlers, these horns do not shed. However, unique to the pronghorn, the outer shell falls off seasonally.

“I mean, for one, they’re beautiful,” said Kelley Stewart, a wildlife ecology professor at UNR. Having evolved alongside a dozen other antelope species, Stewart added that pronghorn are “the last species in their family.” 

If a pronghorn’s habitat is relatively intact, she said, other species that live in the pronghorn’s range, such as the Greater sage grouse, will also benefit. This is why biologists often refer to pronghorn as an umbrella, or indicator, species.

Pronghorn evolved alongside the American cheetah, which translates into each pronghorn being able to run and maintain speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. Researchers have found that when a herd of pronghorn move across the landscape, the animals are more than 90 percent in sync, meaning each hoof of each animal touches the ground at the same time. 

“When you're built for living on flat ground, largely, or rolling ground and running fast, fences are going to be a problem,” Stewart said. 

Fences can be big barriers to pronghorn movement by cutting off their migration routes. Fences also close off access to important forage or water. And they increase fatalities among pronghorn populations by simply getting in the way of a pronghorn’s movement. 

Though there are no predators today that can keep up with the pronghorn, barbed wire fences have made it easier for mountain lions and coyotes to take young fawns and older individuals. 

“They're much more likely to go under fences,” Stewart said of pronghorn, a behavior that can often lead to deep gashes on the neck and back of the animal. 

Moreover, pronghorn did not evolve to jump. When they do jump, it is without grace and their limbs can easily get entangled in the strands of a barbed wire fence. When pronghorn antelopes get trapped in a barbed wire fence, they struggle and slowly perish. 

“It's brutal, broken bones, there's the entanglement and you imagine the suffering that happens,” said Pat Bruce, the stewardship director for Friends of Nevada Wilderness, an environmental group that has worked for years to remove much of the barbed wire that once was in the refuge. 

 Five pronghorn antelope run up a small hill in the North Black Rock Range of northern Nevada. (Richard Bednarski)

343 miles and counting

In 2011, conservationists working for Friends of Nevada Wilderness approached the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge and began an ongoing partnership, working toward removing barbed wire fences and other non-functioning ranching structures that might impede the antelope’s movement. 

For more than a decade, Friends of Nevada Wilderness has hired a crew of AmeriCorps service members to spend the summer working in the refuge. Additionally, the Sierra Club and Audubon Society have completed conservation projects annually for the past two decades. 

“The Fish and Wildlife Service told us, just get [the fences] out to the nearest road and we'll take care of it, but none of us had a grasp of what the volume of wire and posts would be,” said Bruce, who has led the crews each season. 

Now, much of the material has been relocated to old corrals near the refuge headquarters and is piled up nearly two stories tall. 

“Initially this wildlife service thought they had about a hundred miles of fence, and to date we have taken out 343 miles of barbed wire fence,” Bruce said in an interview last year. 

Since 2014, after much of the easily accessed fence had been removed, crews have been hiking deeper into the backcountry to remove isolated pockets of fencing. These remote stretches of fencing are farther and farther from the few dirt roads that meander across the refuge. Crews also have found sections of fence previously unmapped, adding to the growing number of miles removed.

Removing a barbed wire fence is tough work. Not only is there wrangling wire with barbs, the “t-posts” that anchor the wire are often buried deep in the rocky soil, making removal arduous. Many of the fences were miles from roads, meaning crews had to hike in with tools and out with the tools — and the fences. 

“If you think about the average t-post weighing about seven or eight pounds, you can't take very many of those out safely on your back,” explained Bruce. 

In addition to fences, many non-functioning troughs had been identified for removal. They first get cut up with a torch. This work has to be done early in the season before wildfire risk increases. The metal pieces are then strapped to a backpack and hiked out. 

When a trough falls out of repair, it becomes a hazard to more than just pronghorn, putting sage grouse and many of the other 270 species on the refuge at risk. Birds can easily become trapped inside a non-functioning water trough. When they get overgrown with vegetation and are less visible, these troughs also pose a tripping hazard to deer and mountain lions.

The bulk of the work has been funded through mitigation money from the Ruby Pipeline. Built in 2010, the pipeline delivers natural gas from Wyoming to Oregon. Because the pipeline cuts along the southern border of the refuge, litigation money was set aside for the US Fish and Wildlife Refuge solely for habitat restoration. 

“When you're built for living on flat ground, largely, or rolling ground and running fast, fences are going to be a problem.” 

— Kelley Stewart, professor of wildlife ecology, UNR

Threats beyond fences

Fences are not the only threat to wildlife on the refuge. As climate change continues to affect ecosystems, it is raising new concerns. Both drought and increased wildfire risk are changing the landscape for pronghorn. 

The refuge has also taken action to address another threat: Horses and cattle, which have overgrazed the area in the past, pose additional risks to the fragile sagebrush ecosystem.

“In my opinion, they had the range overstocked when they had it with the cattle,” said Brian Day, the refuge manager.

Cattle are prone to overgrazing a landscape if not managed properly. If numbers are too high, the landscape could be stripped of vegetation within one season. In the arid West, vegetation is slow-growing and may not return, leading to the process known as desertification. 

With horses on the landscape, the threats are increased.

“Horses eat everything out of health and home, they're bad for all native wildlife," Stewart said.

They also crowd around springs, she said, leading to trampling and degradation of important water sources. Ultimately, this repeated encroachment could effectively dry out water sources. 

“We ended our livestock grazing policy back in 1994, and then we finished up removing the feral horses and burros in 2014,” Day said (today, there are less than 20 horses on the refuge).

Since removing cattle and horses from the refuge, Day and Callison have observed dramatic improvements to the ecosystem. As a result of grazing, many habitats throughout the refuge were getting to the point of bare ground. When this happens, the sponge-like nature of this type of land loses its water holding capacity, making the region less tolerant to ongoing droughts. 

“There was a lot of erosion and overgrazing type places on the refuge and they're becoming back to a natural state. Our meadow habitats have really jumped back nicely,” Day said.

Rolling hills and rocky outcrops, as seen in this photograph, dominate the landscape of the refuge and provide ideal habitat for the pronghorn. (Carissa Callison/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

With rebounding populations, conservation efforts continue

Since Sans and Sheldon began conservation efforts for the pronghorn antelope, populations have rebounded to about one million animals across North America. 

On the refuge, pronghorn populations have been rising over the past 100 years. Over the last 15 years, there have been an average of 1,700 pronghorn in an annual count and sometimes over 2,000.

With nearly 350 miles of fence removed from the refuge, what remains is a wide expanse that some locals call America’s Serengeti. 

Several conservation and wilderness areas form a swath of protected public lands that amounts to more than 1.6 million acres across this region. For scale, this is nearly 20 times larger than the Las Vegas urban region and 27 times larger than the Reno-Sparks urban region. 

Although the interior of the refuge is virtually fence free, there has been a wildlife-friendly fence erected around the border with the goal of keeping horse and cattle off the refuge. 

Moving forward, Day faces the challenge of managing almost 900 square miles of landscape with few resources. But he is glad to have most of the fence removed. With pockets here and there being found, he estimates that there is less than five miles left across the entire refuge.

“It's a huge, wide open place and now, without any of the interior fences, you can roam this country without seeing any sign of people,” Day said. “Fence removal — it's just instant habitat improvement.”

Richard Bednarski is a Reno-based journalist and a graduate of the UNR Reynolds School of Journalism. Before pursuing a journalism career, he worked in conservation, including with Friends of Nevada Wilderness and field work at the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge.

This story was updated on Monday Jan. 9, 2023 at 11:40 a.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the Northern Paiute as the Newe people. The story has been corrected. The story has also been updated to reflect that historical executive orders conserved one million acres, not one million square miles, as the original story stated. We apologize for these errors.

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