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FWP launches study to map pronghorn pathways

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Pronghorn in the Madison Valley travel through a livestock fence. Generally, they prefer to crawl under or through fences rather than jump over them. PHOTO BY KIT FISCHER

By Jessianne Castle EBS CONTRIBUTING EDITOR

BOZEMAN – While pronghorn are well known for their blazing speed—they’re second only to the cheetah as the fastest land animal—they are increasingly gaining repute in the West for one particular shortcoming: they don’t jump fences.

Pronghorn are a migratory animal evolved to elude predators by sheer speed and their struggle to pass through fences, as well as through subdivisions and across roads, has gained the attention of conservation groups like the Wildlife Conservation Society, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and National Parks Conservation Association, to name a few, which often work to remove or modify fencing.

However, efforts to protect migration corridors require an understanding of the migration pathways themselves. It is to this end that the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks recently captured and collared 40 female pronghorn in the Madison Valley as the beginning of a two-year study into the habits of the local herd.

The Madison Valley is home to approximately 2,500 pronghorn in winter, but beyond that wildlife managers admit knowledge is lacking.

“It’s unclear who goes where, what proportion of the herd is migratory, and how they’re using the landscape and if there are places where their movement has been impeded by fences [or] roads,” said FWP research wildlife biologist Kelly Proffitt. “We don’t have any pronghorn movement information, really, for this part of the state.”

Bozeman area wildlife biologist Julie Cunningham said she’s curious to learn about herd structure from north to south or east to west across the Madison Valley.

“These pronghorn can show up in unusual places, from high elevation in the Gravelly Mountains, to small meadows in the Hebgen Basin,” Cunningham wrote in an email received by EBS.

The pronghorn will wear collars for two years and throughout that time the devices will collect fine-scale movement data during migratory periods and then slow their update rate to provide general location information in summer and winter. Utilizing this benefit of the advancing wildlife research technology, biologists will be able to begin mapping in near real time this spring.

Once movement corridors are identified on the map, Proffitt said the department will work with landowners to identify places that can be improved, potentially with fence modification. She also hopes to integrate a monitoring aspect to the study, through which managers can follow up with cameras to see if fence modification worked.

A project of local interest that has been discussed for years, the Madison Valley pronghorn migration study was finally initiated this year after funding was secured through former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Secretarial Order 3362.

This order, signed in February 2018, prioritizes the conservation of migration pathways and winter ranges for mule deer, elk and pronghorn in the western U.S. As a part of the order, Zinke awarded the Montana department with a $300,000 grant, from which $96,000 will be used for the two-year pronghorn study in the Madison Valley.

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