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After study, NPS alters fencing for pronghorns

October 31, 2009 at 05:46 AM

Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - National Park Service managers are mending livestock fencing at a volcanic monument in southcentral Idaho to help a herd of pronghorn antelope along its 160-mile roundtrip migration across the northern Snake River plain and into Rocky Mountains valleys.

Federal, state and private groups including the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society began cooperating on a GPS study last fall to pinpoint the route of hundreds of these fleet-footed antelope as they travel between the Pioneer Mountains southeast of Sun Valley to near the Continental Divide along the Idaho-Montana border, and back.

In addition to rivers, steep terrain and other natural obstacles, the antelope encounter manmade highways, housing developments - and fences erected for sheep and cattle ranching around the Craters of the Moon National Monument, located 50 miles west of Idaho Falls.

John Apel, a National Park Service resource program manager, says infor mation from the study about the pronghorns’ migration has been a guide to removing or modifying fences, to make it easier for the animals to reach summer and winter range used by pronghorns for thousands of years.

“They are going this long distance not for the joyride - it’s to get some place to improve their survival,” Apel said Friday. “As more and more land is developed with highways and subdivisions, every one of these is cumulative in making that migration a bit more hazardous.”

This past year, the National Park Service removed a half-mile of old livestock fence from the northern portion of the monument; Apel is now planning to modify fences constructed of mesh wire.

Pronghorns, dubbed “Speed Goats” by American explorers Lewis and Clark because they can run 60 mph, can jump fences but prefer to shimmy underneath, so new barriers must provide space between wires and the ground.

Across the Rocky Mountain West, antelope are the subject of several st udies as scientists try to figure out where they spend their time - and how they are affected by human activity. In Wyoming, a five-year project is under way to improve an antelope migration route from Sublette County to Grand Teton National Park.

In Idaho’s study, scientists used helicopters and nets starting a year ago to outfit 10 pronghorns with tracking collars. The collars dropped off automatically after about 11 months, after which they were located via radio signal. The information collected by the GPS units was then analyzed to accurately mark precisely the animals’ journey.

A second year of tracking began in mid-September, this time with collars on 14 pronghorns.

Data collected in Idaho this past year shows pronghorns sometimes walk virtually single-file for distances of up to 10 miles, said Scott Bergen, a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist who led the study with Idaho-based Lava Lake Institute for Science and Conservation.

That’s the case near the tiny desert town of Arco, along the Big Lost River.

“Where they get pinched in their migration is between Arco and Craters of the Moon,” Bergen said. “They naturally don’t want to walk across the lava. That’s a major barrier.”

He aims to use the data to work with not only the National Park Service, but private and state land managers along the pronghorns’ migration route.

The study also appears to fit with the Western Governor’s Association aims.

At its meeting in June, Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed a pact with U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Energy Secretary Steven Chu to gather more information about wildlife migration to guide planning for energy exploration, power transmission and land development.

So far, the Idaho study has been limited to members of a herd of up to 130 pronghorns that spends summers in the Pioneer Mountains and winters in the valleys near the Little Lost River, to the northeast. But hundreds of other pronghorns also share this winter range, so Bergen would like to expand the GPS tracking to learn more about where those other animals return once the weather warms.

“With their migratory nature, it is a lot harder to manage for pronghorns,” Bergen said. “They migrate further than elk or mule deer.”

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