We would never have saved the elk calf entangled in a barbed wire fence if we hadn’t gone off trail. We might not have gone off trail had there not been so much ice on the public two-track road (closed to vehicles) that heads up Glass Hill at the end of 12th street. We may have even turned around if we hadn’t yearned to see that expansive view north over the Grande Ronde Valley. We would have failed if only one of us had found the elk. What if we hadn’t arrived in time?
Hiking through crunchy snow uphill to the ridgetop, we followed a well-traveled elk pathway uphill, marveling at the size of their wide hoof tracks melted to be that much bigger. Golden bunchgrasses poked through the snow on the open hillside. When we came to the five-strand barbed wire dividing the ridge in two, we commented how the elk had worn a trail up and down the fenceline, clearly wanting to cross over to the eastern flank above Ladd Marsh. We, too, had to find a place with loose enough strands to hold two wires open for each other and scoot through, ducking to avoid snagging on a barb.
Lingering on top in blue sky and sun, reveling in this first day of 2018, I snapped photos, unaware that a hundred yards away, yet unseen, an elk calf was fighting for its life and losing. We could have turned back and returned the way we came. Fortunately, we chose to walk down the ridge.
Just past a rock jack anchoring the barbed wire fence, the elk kicked feebly. Lying there in the snow, the exhausted calf still tried to free its back hoof, entangled in the top wires. Wes approached first, talking softly to the terrified animal, letting it know he meant only kindness and help. Emelie and I stayed back, not wanting to add even more stress, until it became clear that freeing the trapped hoof would take all three of us. Adrenaline kicked in and on a count of three, we pulled as hard as humanly possible and the hoof slid free.
The calf had remained still while we yanked, its big brown eyes wide and its chest heaving slightly. I’d scrambled over the fence to gain a better purchase on the wire, while Wes and Emelie remained on the elk’s side. After its stuck hind leg fell free, I reached down and gently freed the other back hoof that appeared slightly caught in a bottom wire and felt a kick, just enough to send my loose mitten flying off my hand.
After we’d all crossed over to the west side, we stood for a few minutes and watched. The calf appeared healthy–well fed with a thick winter coat of chocolate and tawny brown fur. We saw no visible sign of injury–no cut or swollen hoof or sign of a break or dislocation. Lucky for the elk, the bunched wires had trapped, but did not seem to have pinched off its circulation.
We silently cheered as it struggled a bit to stand, and then worried when the calf settled back down. We knew we needed to walk away and give this fighting little animal time to recover. We hoped perhaps its mother and the herd would return to nudge it to its feet. We hated to leave it there so alone and vulnerable, yet we were cautiously elated, too. We’d saved its life. We’d taken action. We’d worked together and made a difference for one wild animal. Could we do more?
The next afternoon, it was Emelie who hiked back up to check on the elk and gave us the welcome news. The calf was gone! All that remained was the story in the snow and a closer look at a deadly section of barbed wire fence– a well-intentioned repair that resulted in a trap. We believe the calf had tried to leap the fence at this low point and almost made it. The trapped hoof sounds a fluke, yet every day animals are dying as they try to cross fences, collide with them, or cannot reach critical habitat for survival.
Yes, we can do more. Since then, several of us have started a conversation about volunteering to help landowners and public land managers identify problem fences, especially those like the one we encountered that block movements of elk or deer across winter ranges. We can find fence volunteer projects, too, to modify or help take out old fences. Here’s an example from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Closer to home in Oregon, check out the work of volunteers removing obsolete fence across more than 90,000 acres on Steens Mountain.
My friend and wildlife biologist Christine Paige authored an entire book for state wildlife agencies that’s online with practical, simple tips to make and modify fences to be friendly to wildlife, yet still serve their purpose for a rancher or other landowner. Several states have now published their own versions. Here’s an applicable one from Wyoming on Fences and Wildlife.
I checked in with Christine for more help on saving wildlife by removing, modifying, or building wildlife-friendly fence from the get go, and how to approach landowners in a helpful, positive way. She says its best to stress that every mile doesn’t have to be wildlife friendly, but landowners can target trouble spots (like the one we found) and modify them. They can provide seasonal crossings and gates. On our 12th Street hike, we passed a section of fence that is laid down deliberately for the winter season, when its not in use–another option. Volunteering to locate and fix problem fence spots is a great idea, especially in your favorite backyard areas to hike, ski and snowshoe.
Saving this brave little elk drove home in a personal way the often invisible dangers of fences to wildlife–from elk to deer to sage grouse. Few of us are there to witness a scene like we encountered or much worse–the death of animals. While we’re nestled close to the wood stove on a winter day, we might not know that somewhere out there a wild animal is struggling for its life, or an entire pronghorn herd is desperately running up and down a fence line, unable to cross and tiring in subzero weather.
The good news is that these wildlife friendlier fence designs work, are being used more, and the word is getting out about the hazards of fences and solutions available. While the best possible scenario for wildlife is no fence at all, where they are needed for livestock, right-of-ways and more, they can be designed to be better for wildlife. There are agencies like the Natural Resources Conservation Service with cost-share dollars available, too.
Our story of the elk calf is not over yet. While I’m happy to think of this young animal reunited with its mother and the herd, I know that the entangling fence is still there. Thanks to my friends in La Grande, an effort is underway to reach out to help modify this fence, and to find other problem ones. My friend Cilla wrote a note to several of us yesterday: “Maybe we could do a little survey on skis or snowshoes this winter and look for all the places leading down to Ladd Marsh that elk and deer cross, based on tracks. This way we could maybe find the worst offenders and prioritize where jump over spots could be located.”
Hooray for Cilla, for Emelie and for all my dear community of La Grande friends so willing to lend a helping hand. Here’s to fewer entanglements in 2018 and celebrating every act of kindness and help for wildlife. Happy New Year!
Please add a comment if you have a story to share. And one more time–please download and share the wildlife friendly fence guide.