Mending fences with the prairie’s most iconic animal – the pronghorn

Some people call them speed goats, others call them antelope, and some just call them delicious, but the pronghorn (Antilocapra Americana) is undoubtedly a grasslands icon.

They are a rare remaining vestige of the Ice Age era, known for its megafauna such as the mammoth, giant beaver and muskox. The pronghorn evolved to outrun massive predators like the sabre-toothed cat, dire wolves and the American cheetah.

Their appearance is like nothing else in the ecosystem. The pronghorn is a handsome, stout animal, and both males and females have permanent horns that are covered with sheaths that are shed every year, although males have much larger horns that fork with pronged tips. They have large eyes with long eyelashes, and are notorious for their curious nature.

They’re the fastest land mammal in the western hemisphere, and their title is second to the cheetah’s for the world’s fastest. They can achieve sprints of up to 88.5 kph, and they can sustain speeds of 56 kph for several kilometres at a time. Yet despite their history, stamina and speed, the last surviving pronghorn species is having a tough time making it in today’s world.

“The pronghorn are at the northern fringe of their range in Alberta,” said T.J. Schwanky, an avid Albertan conservationist, hunter, and host of Outdoor Quest TV, which is currently shooting its 15th season. “Anything we can do to make life a little easier for them is a good thing.”

For six summers in a row, Schwanky – who is also the wildlife projects facilitator for the Alberta Fish and Game Association (AFGA) – has led the Pronghorn Antelope Travel Corridor Enhancement Project with support from the AFGA and the Alberta Conservation Association.

Pronghorn have historic north-south migratory routes to travel between their summering and wintering grounds, but their journeys are made more difficult – and sometimes fatal – by long tracts of fencing across their range. Pronghorn require 16 inches of clearance to crawl under the bottom strand of a fence – any less and they may not attempt to cross at all. Others cross anyway, but contact with the barbs causes hair loss and often cuts their skin. As a result, they’re less able to conserve heat, and many endure chronic low-grade infections from the lacerations.

Schwanky’s project improves existing fencing to allow for easier pronghorn migration by replacing the bottom strand of barbed wire with smooth wire, and moving it to a height of 18 inches.

“So now instead of having to follow established crossings, they can basically cross anywhere they want. While there’s no documented proof of it, I think the predator avoidance issue is kind of a no-brainer. Now if a coyote is chasing them, they can duck under the fence anywhere rather than going to an established crossing,” explained Schwanky.

In some instances, there were miles and miles of fence lines where pronghorn simply could not cross. And while they are physically capable of jumping fences, the vast majority of pronghorn simply don’t – and that can spell disaster for a species struggling to maintain its range. Winter crossings can pose additional danger as drifting snow can eliminate the clearance required under a fence to cross. Instead, the animals may try to cross between two strands of wire, sometimes leading to entanglement and a long, gruesome death.

Pronghorn range is limited by climate and by available habitat. The majority of the pronghorn diet is comprised of sage and forbs, and as a result, the remaining population is found in southwest Saskatchewan and southeast Alberta where large areas of native prairie still persist. The species used to be found all the way into Manitoba, but has been extirpated from that province for a very long time.

Problem fencing is identified by MULTISAR, and landowners are approached by the organization to see if they would be interested in having their bottom wire replaced with a smooth wire. Interested landowners are then approached by Schwanky to make arrangements.

Typically, volunteers spent three weekends during the summer fixing fence, replacing bottom strands, and taking down page wire and other extreme hazards.

“This year we did only 10 miles of smooth wire, but we ended up taking down another 10 miles of breeding pasture fence that were six and seven-strand fences 5-6 feet high. They were a total impediment to movement,” said Schwanky, adding the strands totaled more than 70 miles of barbed wire in total. “It was a lot of work. We have a core group that probably comprises two-thirds of our volunteers and there’s another third that come once or come twice.”

The volunteers – an assortment of conservationists, hunters and city-folk – are essential to getting the tough hands-on job done each year, but Schwanky says it’s the landowners that have really made the effort a success.

“We’ve had incredible buy-in. I think one of the big things that happened is that a lot of the landowners constructing new fences now are constructing to our standards,” he said, adding leftover smooth wire is often given to landowners.  “There’s been good recognition of hunters as conservationists in the area, there’s been good recognition of landowners as conservationists in the area, and there’s been a coming-together of landowners and the public to do this work. It’s been a really good marriage.”

Schwanky says the relationship ranchers have with the land is unique, and so is their relationship with the pronghorn.

“They may not always like the elk so much, and they may not like the deer so much, but I have never talked to a landowner that didn’t have a soft spot in his heart for the pronghorn. Maybe some of that is because during the Depression there were a lot of animals taken out of season just to live and support their families. I think there are a lot of landowners with a deep tie to them and I think that’s why this project has gone over so well.”

Interested landowners or volunteers can contact the AFGA at 780-437-2342 or office@afga.org.

 “The pronghorn is the keystone species down in that area and everyone loves them. It’s only been through the co-operation of a lot of really, really good landowners that this project has taken off,” Schwanky said.



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