Little fence on the prairie is bad for pronghorn

PRONGHORN CAN’T JUMP Unlike mule and white-tailed deer, pronghorn cannot jump over a barbed wire fence, 
they must crawl under it

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A true relic of an ancient world, the pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) evolved its astounding speed to escape predators like the sabre-toothed tiger. Capable of running 100 km/h, it remains the fastest land animal in North America, and on the world stage, places second only to the cheetah. However, in an ironic twist of modern fate, the pronghorn’s continued success as a species is now threatened by a predator that can’t even move – the barbed wire fence.

Pronghorns are built for speed, compact and heavily muscled, and as a result, they lack the agility to jump over fences the way species like the white-tailed and mule deer can. “There have been some documented instances of pronghorns jumping fences in Wyoming, but it’s pretty safe to say that 99.9 per cent of them won’t jump a fence,” said T.J. Schwanky, the Alberta host of “Outdoor Quest TV,” a hunting and conservation author, and the wildlife projects facilitator for the Alberta Fish and Game Association (AFGA).

Instead, pronghorns will usually crawl under the bottom wire of a barbed fence, but even that success comes with a price. “The big issue has been that they need 18 inches of clearance to crawl under a fence. But most have been using barbed wire so even if they do have the clearance, there’s still a lot of hair loss and damage to the skin,” said Schwanky. Hair loss can cause the animal to expend more energy keeping itself warm during the winter. It also causes frostbite, and cuts in the skin can result in bacterial infection.

Injuries from barbed wire aren’t the only threat posed by fences — pronghorn have also been killed by them too. In the winter, the snow can accumulate too much to allow the animal to pass under the bottom wire and instead, it tries to climb between the higher wires. Sometimes, an animal becomes hopelessly entangled, and subsequently endures a painfully slow death.

Nearly half of Alberta’s pronghorns have been documented migrating between summer and winter ranges, but fence placement is at times barring them from fulfilling the same journey their ancestors have taken for thousands of years. If unable to cross a fence, a herd will often pace back and forth for days, trying to find passage.

In 2010, 600 pronghorns unable to migrate eventually wandered into Medicine Hat, and 200 of them did not survive the winter.

As long as people graze cattle, the need for fencing will remain a necessity, but it need not remain a necessary evil.

The Pronghorn Antelope Travel Corridor Enhancement Project is all about mending fences, and will be embarking on its fourth season this summer. “What we’ve been doing is replacing that bottom wire with smooth wire, so now they don’t have to look for just one or two crossings in a mile of fence. It allows for a lot easier migration,” said Schwanky.

“The Alberta Conservation Association (ACA) has the money, but it doesn’t have the volunteer base that the AFGA does, so it was a good marriage. If they could supply the funding for it, we could supply the volunteers and get a lot done for a relatively inexpensive price.”

Every year, there are excursions into the heart of Alberta’s native grasslands and once there, naturalists, hunters, conservationists, producers and even urban artists join forces to forge out a future for the pronghorn. Landowners can contact the AFGA and make a request for a crew to replace their bottom barbed wire with a smooth wire that exceeds the minimum clearance required.

“It’s a really good deal for them because basically, they have people coming out to do fencing for free for them,” said Schwanky. “The other spinoff benefit that I don’t think anyone really counted on, but it’s really happened, is landowners erecting new fences in the region are now using smooth wire.”

This summer’s projects are already planned, but the AFGA does have extra smooth wire available for landowners who are building or fixing fence. The program also seeks to replace page wire fences that still remain on the landscape.

“It’s a total barrier to pronghorn movement,” Schwanky said. “Page wire is a real issue and there’s a lot of it still in southern Alberta along the old railway — that’s all they used was page wire along the railway — so there were linear miles of it that posed a total barrier.”

Volunteers are still needed. The work will take place July 21 – 22, August 18 – 19 and Oct. 6 – 7. “We try not to work people too hard — we do realize that these are volunteers. They’re there to have some fun and do some good for wildlife, so we want to allow them that opportunity to enjoy the region and we really make a point of that. We typically have a speaker come out in the morning to talk a little bit about the ecosystem and the area and what they can watch for. It’s a very unique landscape,” Schwanky said. “We’ve seen rattlesnakes, leopard frogs and swift foxes — the kind of things most people wouldn’t get an opportunity to see in their life.” Contact the AFGA at 780-437-2342 or [email protected]

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