GREAT FALLS — A deadly barbed-wire fence that scores of antelope encountered each year west of Nashua was removed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks earlier this week, giving the animals a better chance of surviving annual migrations.
The project was part of stepped-up efforts to remove old fencing in locations in northeastern Montana that a researcher has identified as barriers to pronghorn migrations, said Drew Henry, a FWP wildlife biologist in Glasgow.
"There's a lot of those pinch points from north Valley County to Canada," Henry said.
Nashua, 285 miles northeast of Great Falls, is located 14 miles east of Glasgow and 11 miles north of Fort Peck on Highway 2.
The old woven-wire and barbed-wire fencing that was removed was strung for about a mile along U.S. Highway 2.
It was a potential barrier for pronghorn and other wildlife trying to cross the busy road and an adjacent set of Burlington Northern-Santa Fe train tracks, according to FWP.
The FWP crew was assisted by Glasgow-area residents Darvin Henry, Bob Kemp Jr. and Andrew McKean and his son, Merlin, as well as Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation employees Matt Poole and Marc Kloker in removing the fence Sunday and Monday.
"Every fall there's antelope stacked up around that area on each side of the highway," FWP spokesman Ron Selden said. "It's a choke point. They're just stuck there. And they get scared trying cross the highway."
Selden said he was amazed at the number of bones and skulls, of all shapes and sizes, that littered both sides of the old fence, the remains of antelope that didn't make it to the other side.
Even with the fence removed, the stretch remains a difficult crossing for the fastest land mammals in North America, which prefer to go under fences rather than jump over them. That's not possible with sheep-style fencing that has heavy-gauge wire panels right to the ground.
"They still get hit by trains and cars," Selden said. "At least it should remove some of the stress."
The property where the old fencing was removed is owned by Valley County, Jim Strodtbeck and Jason Sauer, who gave their permission to proceed with the project.
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Nearly 7,000 feet of woven wire and about 3,000 feet of four-strand barbed wire fence and numerous metal posts were taken down and hauled away. The wire and posts will be recycled.
"It's the type of project that benefits wildlife right from the start and for years to come," Henry said.
Recent research conducted by Andrew Jakes, in cooperation with FWP, shows that migrating pronghorn are prone to being delayed in specific locations — usually by fence lines — during their migration, Henry said.
Jakes, a student at the University of Calgary, is studying pronghorn migrations between northern Montana and Saskatchewan and Alberta.
The Nashua location was identified through that research and also by travelers along Highway 2, where the halted antelope were often forced to stage. That was especially true during the harsh winter of 2010-11, when hundreds of pronghorn died across Region 6 after being struck by cars, trucks and trains and due to impassable fences and deep snowdrifts.
Henry says FWP biologists want to work on more fence removal projects. They always knew about pronghorn migrations but Jakes' work is producing hard data showing how much pronghorn are being delayed at specific locations.
"They might be small areas, but they may impact a larger landscape when you think about getting those antelope out of here on time," Henry said.
Antelope migrate south in the winter and north in the summer.
They have an instinct to move east and west to find an opening in a barrier but will only go so far before turning around, Henry said. As a result, some animals end up going back and forth, Henry said. That was evident at the Nashua site where the fence was removed.
"You could see 50 some animals laying on that hillside at any one time," he said.
The old fence was not being used, he said.
Another choke point is located east of Malta, Selden said. FWP asked the landowner to keep the gates open after moving cattle in the fall. "That's been a huge help," Selden said.