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Pulling Together for Wildlife

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Fence pull on the Porcupine Plateau with JHWF, May 2014

The Jackson Hole Land Trust has had great success using conservation easements to protect the natural values of the private lands in northwest Wyoming, but placing property under the protection of easements is only the first step in effective conservation work.  As summer descends on Jackson Hole, so too begins the “forever” phase of active land protection – our ongoing annual duty of getting out on the land to monitor properties, visit with landowners and ranch managers of conservation properties, and together ensure that the conservation values of each easement are upheld through time.

Oftentimes on these visits we observe changes that have occurred to a property – sometimes through human activity like building and landscaping, and other times by the hand of nature. As land stewards, our job is to note these changes, ensure that any human-caused changes have gone through the appropriate Land Trust approval processes (as specified in the terms of the easement), and suggest ways to keep habitat on the property as ecologically functional as it was when the easement was placed. The latter is one of the more nuanced challenges of conservation through time, because habitat can be affected in multiple ways – including changes to diversity, native vs. invasive species composition, connectivity, water quality and quantity, and suitability for certain species. One common example that our stewardship team sees of human activity affecting connectivity and functional habitat is the use of exclusionary fencing that prohibits seasonal migrations or daily movements.

For many conservation landowners, especially those that use their land for ranching and agriculture, fences are a necessary part of ranch operations. Whenever possible, the Land Trust encourages landowners to implement functional fencing that also allows for wildlife to safely move through their properties – such as ones with sections of smooth rather than barbed wire, and wires set at heights to allow animals to pass over and under fences. Another technique is to adapt sections of fencing on a seasonal basis, in locations of known migration routes. Sometimes provisions for wildlife-friendly fencing are stated in the easements themselves.

On some conservation properties, fences exist because they were put up long ago, long before wildlife-friendliness was even a consideration. If they are outdated and no longer needed for ranching or agriculture, they may be candidates for removal. On the Porcupine Plateau, in the southeastern part of the valley above the Snake River, the Land Trust holds easements with several different conservation landowners who have been interested in removing fencing to allow wildlife in this ecologically-rich area, especially elk, to move more easily to adjacent Bridger-Teton National Forest lands and nearby Wyoming Game & Fish Department elk feedgrounds to the south.

The Land Trust hosted several volunteer days starting in 2008 to pull fencing on several of these easement-protected properties, and in recent years these fence removal efforts have been spearheaded by our partners at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation. A few weekends ago on a sunny spring day, I went out with a group of volunteers to the Porcupine Plateau to work away at another section of fence. We tackled sections on a steep hillside, and saw at least four elk carcasses hung up on the fence –evidence of attempted migration gone wrong. At the end of the day, we had pulled the last section of woven wire fence along the south part of the Plateau. It was wonderful to see functional habitat restored, and community volunteers and wildlife-minded landowners pulling together to make this happen.

Steffan Freeman

 

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