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California volunteers pitch in to help pronghorn antelope -- by removing fences

January 14, 2010 | 11:26 am

Pronghorns

The fences crossing the desolate Carrizo Plain are remnants of the hardscrabble homesteaders who arrived a century ago, then abandoned the arid, alkaline land to the elements.

Now the barbed-wire legacy of ranching and farming on this inhospitable landscape in California is being blamed for threatening the recovery of antelope that were reintroduced in 1990 after being slaughtered to near extinction.

The long stretches of fence spread across the range prevent the pronghorn from fleeing predators and seeking forage, and are a big reason why the herd has the worst survival rate in the West. Pronghorn are North American's fastest runners but cannot jump the fences.

So volunteers have taken on a cowboy's most odious ranch task, hoping to improve the odds of the herd by taking down fences. Suffering bloody scrapes and punctures, they dismantle rusty barriers and modify others to give the antelope of the Carrizo Plain National Monument a fighting chance against coyotes that vastly outnumber them.

"You get a sense of satisfaction opening things up and making them free and wild again," said Alice Koch, a state wildlife biologist who started the fence project on her own on her days off but now has a cadre of volunteers who proudly show off their battle wounds. "We're opening their world up into a better and more survivable one."

The pronghorn are part of a debate over the future of the Carrizo Plain, designated a national monument by the federal government nine years ago. A draft management plan for the park indicated some cattle grazing would be allowed to control invasive species, but the EPA and others have countered that cattle can adversely affect native species as well. Those comments are under final review.

"Grazing is somewhat contentious," said volunteer Craig Deutsche, who organizes four work trips a year. "Is it helpful or harmful? Do ranchers have rights by priority? Do cows have rights here since they are not native? It's something to think about as we do the work."

Pronghorn The fence volunteers' work is painstakingly slow. It must be done by hand, and all wire carried out on foot to protect the fragile underground burrows of endangered species such as kit fox, antelope squirrels and kangaroo rats.

But there is an incredible amount of work to do: Volunteers put in more hours than the Bureau of Land Management could afford to hire out.

"If we had to contract this out, it would probably get done only in critical areas," said Ryan Cooper of the BLM. "Their goal is every fence on the monument."

The grassy plain 80 miles west of Bakersfield is isolated by the Temblor Mountains -- an upthrust of the San Andreas fault -- and the Coast Range. Officials say it is the only place in the world where pronghorn and tule elk, also once plentiful in the Central Valley, have been reintroduced together to replicate an extinct landscape.

The elk have adapted so well that sometimes they are subject to limited hunting.

The pronghorn? In the state's other two regions where they have been reintroduced in habitats not crossed with cattle fences, 25% survive to the age at which they can outrun coyotes. In the Carrizo, it is less than 10%, a number that inspires the fence removers to give up their weekends and holidays.

Some abandoned fence inside the monument is removed entirely, but along miles of others that still hold cattle, volunteers stoop to replace the bottom wire with a smooth strand high enough for the 90 or so goat-sized Pronghorn to squeeze under.

"It's a meditation for me," said Suzanne Swedo of Los Angeles, who spent a long New Year's holiday with 14 other volunteers an hour and a half's drive from the nearest grocery store. "When I'm out here working, if I have anything on my mind, it just goes away."

Their headquarters is an old prairie house owned by the Nature Conservancy where the Carrizo's first manager lived when President Clinton created the monument in a flurry of public land designations three days before he left office.

Once it was common on the Carrizo to see the tan-colored antelope nervously pacing a fence they could not figure out how to bypass. As of the new year, 150 of 200 targeted miles of fence on 250,000 acres have been modified or removed by the volunteers.

Against the backdrop of this beautiful desolation, their success is not always measurable by the wire-mile.

"If you've ever seen them go under a fence you've just removed, it's a beautiful thing," said Janice Hamilton, a family therapist from Santa Barbara. "I'll do anything to preserve some of this for my grandchildren."

-- Associated Press

Photo: Pronghorns are seen in the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Oregon. Credit: Eric Lucas

Illustration: Dugald Stermer / For the Times

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