By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
An early-morning ruckus at a home on the Shoshone National Forest boundary made Wapiti residents Mike and Margie Johnson aware that their friendly neighborhood deer were in danger.
“At 5:00 in the morning, we got up and we heard this noise,” Margie said. “When we went outside, it was totally dark. And there’s a big tree that was right on the fence line, and two humongous, mule deer boys – racks as big as you can see – were going at it, but they had this wire wrapped around their antlers. And they were trying to get free, and they were fighting.”
Johnson, visibly upset as she recalled the incident, said she and her husband did their best to free the animals with bolt cutters without putting themselves in danger.
“Finally they got loose, one ran away with a little bit of wire wrapped on his antlers still,” she said. “The other one, he tried to get up and he never made it up. And two hours later he passed.”
“And that’s what got us knowing how bad this stuff is,” Johnson said.
“This stuff” is barbed wire, which forest managers and landowners have used for years to delineate boundaries between private and public lands.
But the wire, with its sharp barbs, is a danger to many animals that inhabit the forests and open lands in Wyoming, according to Kerry Murphy, wildlife biologist with the Shoshone National Forest.
“Big game animals (get) caught by their hooves in fence wire, or bird strikes, that kind of thing,” Murphy said.
So on a Friday morning in June, more than a dozen people gathered in a parking area at the boundary of the Shoshone National Forest west of Cody to take down stretches of the dangerous barbed wire that can catch wildlife.
The Absaroka Fence Initiative is a partnership of federal agencies, private landowners and local volunteers with a common goal – to enhance wildlife movement and reduce wildlife mortality, while still meeting the needs of livestock producers.
“The objectives are to enhance wildlife movement, most often big game, but also birds like sage grouse,” said Murphy. “(Also) enhance their migratory movements or their movements on winter ranges and reduce mortality of wildlife associated with fence wire.”
The Absaroka Fence Initiative truly is a public-private partnership in the best sense of the term, according to Murphy, in which volunteers, landowners and federal agencies are working to help the wildlife.
“There are many different folks out here from different federal agencies, state agencies, private landowners, ranch caretakers, private citizens – they all come together to form the Absaroka Fence Initiative, and it’s a great bunch of folks working together,” he said.
On this particular workday, the volunteers and staff from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Shoshone National Forest and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management are taking down or replacing five different sections of fence, according to Murphy.
“On two of them, we’re modifying the fence and replacing barbed wire with smooth wire,” he said. “And on the other sections of fence – and this is all coordinated with the landowners – it’ll be fence wire removal in entirety. And then the Bureau of Land Management folks, they have a skid steer and a wire winder that once the fence wires laying on the ground will stand clear. They’ll hook it up to the winder, and they’ll buzz it in.”
Murphy pointed out that the agencies make sure to work with livestock producers to meet their needs as well.
“We set up these projects and leave fences that are very consistent with livestock production,” he said.
One of the landowners volunteering his time on this Friday morning is Jason Schultz, who with other local landowners has already gathered yards of barbed wire after witnessing animals getting caught up in it.
“In the wintertime, the snow builds up along these fence lines,” Schultz told Cowboy State Daily. “And a lot of the barbed wire is actually loose, and it’s just kind of strewn around where the fence posts are. And what happens is, the animals come down, or go up the mountain, and then they can’t see the fence line, and they get tripped up on it.”
Johnson pointed out that the work being done today will help wildlife, but won’t affect the humans who rely on the fencing.
“The fence posts will stay so we know where the forest is, but it’ll be way safer,” said Johnson, who shares a property line with Schultz. “And where they do need to put up fence, they’ve got smooth wire and it goes lower, so that the animals can go over it.”
Murphy added that the group is always looking for volunteers.
“We’re always interested in having citizen folks come out, and landowners come out and join us on our operation,” he said, encouraging anyone interested to go to the website absarokafenceinitiative.org.
“We have several more fence projects coming up this summer,” Murphy added. “And folks can just join in, contact us on the website.”