Scanning the sagebrush-covered horizon to the snow-capped peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, I hope to spot a pronghorn ‘antelope’—a unique North American mammal, but not actually related to the African antelope. The views here on the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in northern New Mexico are expansive and only interrupted by the occasional extinct lava dome covered in pines. Herds of hooved animals migrated across these landscapes since time immemorial, before people-built fences and roads, and millennia before the political border line was drawn between New Mexico and Colorado.
I’m here on a colorful fall day to join a handful of volunteers and government partners to restore prehistoric wildlife movement corridors. We are quite literally removing obsolete sheep fencing on public lands—fencing that prevents the movement of wildlife. There are only five, high elevation, pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) herds in the U.S. and one of them regularly migrates through northwest Taos County, across federal lands, including the National Monument. The current fencing is devastating not only for pronghorn but for elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep as well because it prevents natural movement and can entangle animals resulting in eventual death.
In October, Defenders of Wildlife, Taos Soil & Water Conservation District, the Bureau of Land Management and the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts hosted a two-day volunteer event to remove obsolete barbed wire fencing and replace it with wildlife-friendly fences in the areas most traveled by pronghorn herds. The project, funded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, includes the removal and modification of 20 miles of fence and the treatment of noxious and non-native plant species along both 20 miles of roadway, and 20 miles of streams and creeks, in order to improve sagebrush steppe habitat. In addition to hoofed mammals, other wildlife benefiting from our work include birds like the sagebrush sparrow and sage thrasher, and a variety of riverbank dependent species.
Pronghorns migrate many miles from high elevation summer habitat—above 10,000'—in the Tusas Mountains (the southernmost extent of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains) to lower elevation winter ranges within the Taos Plateau. Identifying movement corridors and removing or modifying fencing in select areas is a high priority in the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish’s state wildlife action plan, in order to increase habitat connectivity in this landscape.
The old-school barbed wire fencing can cause wildlife deaths directly through collisions and entanglements, but it can also kill and injure wildlife indirectly or reduce the overall fitness of wildlife by making landscapes impassable or important habitat less accessible. Removal and modification of fences is a low-tech way to make significant improvements to pronghorn antelope, elk and mule deer herds throughout their lifecycle. In the project area, state and federal agencies have been monitoring areas of significant big game movement and winter range landscapes west of the Rio Grande Gorge.
Sheep grazing was the norm for much of Northern New Mexico from the 1700’s, and well into the 1900’s. To pen this livestock, hundreds of miles of net wire fence were erected to separate ranches and pastures. Landowners and government personnel modernized their fence infrastructure over time, but it is only recently (within the last 10 years) that there have been prioritized efforts to accommodate wildlife movement patterns.
Defenders’ fieldwork to restore wildlife corridors compliments ongoing collaboration with the state of New Mexico’s efforts to develop effective policies facilitating wildlife movement and safe vehicle travel in the state, thereby improving human-wildlife coexistence. An estimated one to two million crashes between motor vehicles and large animals, such as deer, occur every year in the U.S., according to the Federal Highway Administration. These collisions cause approximately 200 human deaths annually, 26,000 injuries, and at least $8 billion in property damage and other costs.
In the summer of 2022, the New Mexico Departments of Transportation, and Game and Fish, released a “Wildlife Corridors Action Plan.” This stems from the state’s Wildlife Corridors Act of 2019 and the 700-page plan directs efforts to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and enhance wildlife habitat linkages across the state. Together with the bipartisan federal Infrastructure Law, which creates a $350 million Wildlife Crossing Pilot Program, significant progress is being made to improve wildlife and driver safety, reconnect habitat and safeguard wildlife movement.
After a long, grueling day of pulling steel fence posts with a “post-puller,” my arms ached, but the huge smile on my face was a better indicator of hope for restored sagebrush landscapes and free-running herds of pronghorn. Looking out over the range, the silhouettes of pronghorn ‘antelopes’ and mule deer stood out against the flaming colors of the sunset, just like they had done millennia ago.