Tangling with fence issues
Earlier this month, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife uploaded a Facebook post about two bull elk that had gotten tangled in some barbed wire fencing.
"They were kind of fighting. Bull elk will fight each other and wrestle around with their antlers," said Greg Jackle, district wildlife biologist. "They got tangled up in a cattle fence. One of them was getting drug around by the other, and it turned out the one was dead."
ODFW troopers were able to radio dispatch and notify the Prineville field office staff to bring the equipment to sedate the bull elk, and they managed to free the surviving animal.
"We got the wire removed from the live bull and ear-tagged it," Jackle noted. "It's still hunting season, so if somebody harvests that animal, they need to contact us. There has to be a withdrawal time period for the (sedation) drug."
This isn't the first time fencing has caused the inadvertent death of big game in the Central Oregon area. Jackle recalls another incident during deer season where a hunter discovered a dead bull elk that had gotten tangled in some woven wire fencing. That particular type of fencing is designed to keep animals off of certain property, and the Forest Service will sometimes use it to protect aspen stands.
"We went out there and basically cleaned up the wire and got the head out of there," he said.
Jackle acknowledges that wildlife getting tangled in fencing material is not something that happens real frequently. There are years when no incidents occur, but then others will yield multiple incidents. And as far as he and his ODFW colleagues are concerned, one inadvertent death of big game is one too many — especially given the number of animals that get killed by vehicles.
"It's something that we always try to preach to folks when they plan on putting up fences or even when we talk to the Forest Service about it – try making every fence as wildlife friendly as possible," he said.
ODFW recommends that four-wire fences have a smooth wire at the bottom that is at least 18 inches off the ground. That enables fawns and calves and other small animals to safely crawl under them. The agency recommends another smooth wire at the top of the fence, with a height not exceeding 42 inches.
"That allows animals to be able to jump the fence when they are old enough," Jackle said.
Because some county property is located in big game habitat, ODFW reaches out to counties with formalized guidelines on how to build wildlife-friendly fences. Because ODFW is not a regulatory agency, Jackle said the guidelines are meant more as a recommendation.
Crook County Community Planning Director Ann Beier said that the county has been working with Jackle to develop some user-friendly literature for people to reference if they are planning to build on or add to private property on the county's wildlife overlay zone.
"We haven't gotten very far on it so far," she admits, citing hers and Jackle's busy schedules as one of the hindrances, "but it is definitely on our radar screen."
Beier went on to note that they already work with ODFW when determining the type of fencing they will use around their incoming solar plant projects south of Prineville.
"We directly involve Oregon Fish and Wildlife to make sure we have the right fencing on those bigger projects," she said.
Not only does big game struggle with newer or well-kempt fences on the landscape, they run the risk of injury or death when they encounter ones that are old or in disrepair.
"If you drive around enough in Eastern Oregon, you will see fences that there are good, nice and wildlife friendly — and there are a lot of fences out there that are not. There are old fences and broken down fences," Jackle said. "It's nice for folks to be aware, to clean these things up if they can."
He went on to note that some hunter organizations have launched volunteer projects to ensure more clean-up projects get completed. Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has completed many wire removal and fence cleanup projects as has the Oregon Hunters Association.
Gary Proehl, board chair for OHA's Ochoco chapter, says that fencing-caused injuries or deaths to big game is "a hard pill to swallow," especially when so many are already killed by vehicles.
"I think that anybody who has been out hunting has either seen the effects of wildlife being caught up in fences and dying, or has helped to release them."
ODFW is urging people who see animals stuck or trapped to notify their agency or the Oregon State Police.
"Do not attempt to free the animal on your own. An injured or trapped animal may be extremely dangerous," the post stated. "And if you notice old rope or unused wire laying around where an animal may become wrapped up or trapped in it, please remove it if possible."