The Pronghorn’s Last Best Hope
Joe Josephson and Local Landowners Help Them Roam Free
The pronghorn of the northern Yellowstone (often called antelope) form the last remaining herd of America's first national park. This ancient remnant seeks to parti-cipate in a long-distance migration rare in the modern world.
Once, Yellowstone's antelope migrated up the the Gardiner Basin and Paradise Valley as far north as Livingston. At the turn of the 20th Century though, development began to hamper their movements and finally cut off their historic route.
In Grand Teton, pronghorn still migrate over 150 miles from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to the Green River Valley, the second longest terrestrial migration in North America after Arctic caribou.
The Yellowstone herd, now reduced to 200 animals, faces a variety of obstacles to its health and long term survival, including a degraded winter habitat. A recent harsh winter with deep snow compounds the problem. Since pronghorn are unable to dig and forage through snow like other ungulates, they are forced northward in search of nourishment. As they migrate though, they encounter fences, roads and other obstacles. Pronghorn, due to their unique biology, don't jump fences like elk or deer. They will crawl under them, but fences must often be adapted to this purpose.
The pronghorn’s limited ability to roam free has brought with it over time other problems. Their resulting isolation stifles the genetic diversity, through breeding with other herds, that benefits all species by helping them to thrive and adapt as they reproduce.
Having evolved in the Pleisto-cene when they were prey for speedy prehistoric cheetahs and hyenas, the pronghorn's current status as the fastest land animal in North America is, in the words of pronghorn researcher John A. Byers, a ghost of predators past. With an ability to run at 30 mph indefinitely with top speeds pushing 60 mph, they simply outran everything.
Yet today, as populous as pronghorn appear in many places in the West, they are strangely ill-adapted to the modern world, where public and private lands are fragmented by fences and development. These new threats not only diminish their greatest asset, their sheer speed, but also their ability to migrate over long distances toward snow free landscapes and forage.
Pronghorn can be found in various areas near Liv-ingston, at times along Hwy 10, just outside of town, more commonly along Meigs Road, north and northeast of town, and also on the Mission Creek Bench. Yellowstone pronghorn, now a distinct herd, once migrated all the way north out of Paradise Valley toward these areas, but there is no longer any connection between the animals found south of Big Creek and those around Liv-ingston. Rare sightings of animals just north of Big Creek continue. These are part of the “Carbella” herd. The Yellowstone and Carbella herds, though, are completely isolated.
In recent years, wildlife officials from Yellowstone and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks determined that Yellowstone pronghorn are at risk. In 2010, the National Parks Conservation Association hired Joe Josephson, now a Yellowstone Wildlife Fellow, to help deal with the problem. Josephson lives in Livingston, but he works out of the NPCA Yellowstone Field Office in Bozeman. That’s when he’s not in the Paradise Valley doing field work around Tom Miner Basin—working with landowners so the pronghorn can find adequate winter habitat north of the park and connect with resident animals on private lands between Rock Creek and Big Creek.
“This connectivity,” Josephson told the Pioneer, “is the last best hope for Yellowstone's pronghorn herd to ensure they maintain genetic diversity, their ability to migrate, and find adequate winter habitat.”
Josephson’s assignment and goal is to look for “mutually beneficial projects that either remove abandoned fences or modify others to make them more friendly for pronghorn and other wildife, while still meeting the intentions of the fence.”
And his method, essentially, has been to enlist the voluntary cooperation of landowners, with NPCA providing, in most cases, volunteer labor and supplies so that fences can be adapted to the pronhorn's needs.
Pronghorn, it must be noted, do not jump fences like other ungulates, they crawl beneath them, if possible, and so fencing poses an especially restrictive deterrent to their natural movements.
Currently, Josephson said, pronghorn in Paradise Valley are limited to the west side of the Yellowstone River and south of Big Creek. The key bottleneck for migrating pronghorn, other than natural ones like Yankee Jim Canyon, is located at Tom Miner Creek and Rock Creek. There, the corridor is in places only a few feet wide and often bisected by the busy county road. Most of his work over the summer of 2010 was focused on the lower Tom Miner Basin. He also worked around Point of Rocks and with the Gallatin National Forest, Gardiner District.
Josephson told us that his conversations with “stakeholders” in the area “hopefully gets them thinking about pronghorn, which tend to exist in the shadow of other iconic species like elk and bison, and the simple ways we can improve the pronghorn's long-term success and still meet any needs of the landowners.”
An array of simple and effective wildlife friendly fencing techniques can help.
The simplest modification to any fence to dramatically improve the ability of pronghorn and other ungulates to pass under is to raise the lower strand to a height of 16 to 18 inches off the ground. Preferably this should be smooth, not barb, wire. The top strands of the fence should not be higher than 40 inches. As ranchers in Montana know, if elk can't jump a fence, they run through it. And then cleaning up tangled and derelict fences is beneficial also because they pose an entanglement hazard for wildlife and livestock.
“If these specs don't satisfy whatever livestock or property boundary requirements the landowner may have,” Josephson said, “there are a whole raft of seasonal fence modifications that allow wildlife to pass freely at critical times of the year while adequately holding livestock at others.”
Generally, Josephson says, wildlife-friendly fencing requires less maintenance which is always of interest to any landowner.
When asked about how he has been received by landowners whose properties intersect with pronghorn movements, those whose help he has solicited, Josephson said the reception has been warm.
“In a nutshell,” he said, “everyone I've encountered loves antelope. And not just for their steaks. This is one of the iconic species in the West and Yellowstone and their complex social structure makes them a fascinating creature that everyone seems to enjoy having around.
The pronghorn, though, he pointed out, are taken for granted, in that most people don't recognize that they are at risk, and to what degree. Josephson said this is the case not just in the isolated Yellowstone and Carbella herds, but across the region. As reported over the winter in the Billings Gazette, deep snow in eastern Montana has had a devastating impact on pronghorn populations.
Willingness to help though, is robust. “Without exception,” Josephson said, “every landowner I've talked with has expressed interest in helping the pronghorn.”
As a 4th generation Montanan from Big Timber, Josephson understands the challenges and needs landowners have managing their land not only for their own requirements but also for the needs of wildlife.
“Perhaps the biggest challenge I've encountered has been simply finding the time and place to work together. As you know, there are many part-time residents and others are busy running their ranches and taking care of livestock. So it becomes a long-term endeavor to create relationships and identify needs and solutions.”
Those solutions, though, may be taking shape in Paradise Valley. According to Josephson, retired FWP biologist Tom Lemke of Livingston said that in the past he rarely saw antelope on the state land near Point of Rocks sandwiched between Highway 89 and Old Yellowstone Trail. That seems to have changed “Over the summer and fall 2010, it was rare when I didn't see pronghorn on this piece,” Josephson said. “I'm not a scientist, but clearly the pronghorn prefer this area, perhaps due to the spring there, or that it is native forage unaffected by livestock.
Once over the summer, Josephson went on to say, while driving north over Point of Rocks, he encountered a single doe pronghorn standing in the county road. “She ping-ponged around,” he said, “then ran ahead for over a quarter mile to the only weakness in the barb wire fence where she could crawl under.” Josephson cited such an event as an example of wildlife-friendly fencing improving the ability of pronghorn to freely use their preferred habitat while making conditions safer for vehicles by minimizing the chances of collisions with animals.
Enabling this freedom of movement for antelope, what’s more, need not be especially difficult.
A landowner on one of the most critical pieces of the migration corridor near Tom Miner Creek, who already had a smooth wire fence, simply moved the lower strand up to allow pronghorn to easily pass under. By moving that one strand (less than an hour of work, according Josephson), the width of the corridor increased from some 20 feet to over 200 feet at a spot highly affected by traffic coming from Highway 89.
For a resource dealing with wildlife friendly fencing, visit:
For a more in-depth treatment, read Landowner's Guide to Wildlife Friendly Fences: How to Build Fence with Wildlife in Mind from the Montana FWP website.