Sage-grouse, © Jean Bjerke

Flagging Fences For Grouse

The tiny town of Winifred is in east-central Montana, an hour north of Lewistown and south of the rugged and beautiful Missouri Breaks National Monument. It is, as some people might describe it, in the middle of nowhere. It’s also in the middle of sage-grouse country, adjacent to one of the largest remaining populations in the state. And that’s why two Defenders of Wildlife staff and one dedicated volunteer recently took a wintry trip there to conduct sage-grouse conservation field work.

Winifred is a ranching community where ranchers have raised cattle for generations, mostly on private land. Tens of thousands of miles of livestock fences stretch across the West in communities like Winifred, presenting a dangerous barrier to wildlife on the move. One way to lessen the impacts of livestock fences is by marking, or flagging, those that are “high risk.” Barbed wire fences in particular can be harmful or lethal to many species of wildlife attempting to cross over or under them, including sage-grouse. 

Sage-grouse, once a common sight in the West, are now imperiled, with current populations estimated at less than ten percent of historic levels. The birds are low, powerful fliers, known to fly before sunrise to their breeding grounds. When flushed, they sometimes fly directly into barbed wire strands…with gruesome results. Fences near sage-grouse breeding and nesting habitat and wintering areas can be especially hazardous.

An obvious step to reduce this threat is to remove fences, and we’re eager to find ways to help land management agencies and private landowners to do so. However, where fence removal is not an option, research has also found that the dangers posed by fences can be mitigated by clipping markers onto the fence to help sage-grouse see the skinny wires before they strike them. A study of sage-grouse and fence collisions by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department suggested that markers reduced sage-grouse mortality in the study area by 61 percent between 2007 and 2009. A second field experiment conducted in Idaho in 2010 found an approximate 83 percent reduction in collision rates at marked fences relative to unmarked fences.

Defenders partnered with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and a willing and helpful rancher who was pleased to have our assistance in marking his fences for sage-grouse. Along with NRCS’s sage-grouse expert Bruce Waage and local NRCS district conservationist Lorna Philp, Defenders staff Mark Salvo and Kylie Paul, and intrepid volunteer Ben Donatelle, walked numerous miles of snow-drifted fences along the rancher’s property, which is located near a sage-grouse lek (a crucial breeding ground that the birds return to year after year). Flagging fences was not difficult; we clipped tags cut from vinyl house siding (provided by NRCS) every three to four feet onto the top wire of the fence. And, while we were at it, we thoroughly enjoyed the brisk temperatures, amazing sunsets, and serenading coyotes that are a part of everyday life of this unique landscape.

Our recent trip to the field was edifying. We learned that flagging fences with markers is a relatively quick and easy job that can potentially save sage-grouse from injuries or death – so we plan to partner with NRCS and private landowners in Montana, and perhaps elsewhere, to hang more of these fence markers in sage-grouse habitat.

Sage-grouse flagging trip 1 © Ben Donatelle

Defenders of Wildlife met with federal agency field staff at a ranch near Winifred, Montana, in December to flag fences for sage-grouse. While temperatures dipped to double digit degrees below zero the previous week, they had "warmed" considerably—to a high of 25 degrees during our visit. (© Ben Donatelle)

Sage-grouse flagging trip 2 © Kylie Paul

Fence tags are cut from plastic vinyl siding provided by the NRCS. They easily clip onto the barbed wire. (© Kylie Paul)

Sage-grouse flagging trip 3 © Mark Salvo

Kylie Paul, Rockies and Plains Representative for Defenders of Wildlife, flagging a fence for sage-grouse. (© Mark Salvo)

Sage-grouse flagging trip 4 © Kylie Paul

Ben Donatelle, a supporter of Defenders of Wildlife, joined our effort in eastern Montana. (© Kylie Paul)

Sage-grouse flagging trip 5 © Kylie Paul

Mark Salvo, Director of Federal Lands Conservation for Defenders of Wildlife, travelled from Washington, DC, to flag fences. Having spent the last ten years in Phoenix, Arizona, he was surprised that he survived the cold in eastern Montana. (© Kylie Paul)

Sage-grouse flagging trip 6 © Kylie Paul

Flagging fences makes them more visible to sage-grouse. Hopefully the birds will see the flags and fly over the barbed wire strands, rather than colliding into them. (© Kylie Paul)

Sage-grouse flagging trip 7 © Kylie Paul

We clipped thousands of flags every 3-4 feet on five miles of fences in two days. (© Kylie Paul)

Sage-grouse flagging trip 8 © Kylie Paul

The flags are visible at dawn and dusk, when sage-grouse are often on the move. (© Kylie Paul)

Sage-grouse flagging trip 9 © Ben Donatelle

Gorgeous sunset over the eastern plains of Montana. (© Ben Donatelle)

Sage-grouse flagging trip 10 © Ben Donatelle

Can there be too many photos of sunsets? (© Ben Donatelle)

Sage-grouse flagging trip 12 © Kylie Paul

The local watering hole in Winifred encouraged patrons to leave their mark on the tavern walls, and so we did. (© Kylie Paul)

Kylie Paul is Defenders’ Rockies & Plains Representative. Mark Salvo, Director of Federal Lands Conservation contributed to this post.

9 Responses to “Flagging Fences For Grouse”

  1. Deborah Richie

    Thank you for your volunteer efforts and for writing up this great story, Kylie–and the whole team. It’s a great partnership and wish I could have joined you, especially in the “warm” weather!

    Reply
  2. Donald J Kaleta

    For a more VISIBLE and SAFER wire barrier (compared to the Vinyl Undersil markers) to mitigate the dire consequences of those that might impact,such as Sage Grouse, please visit our manufactured product line web site at http://WWW.FENCE-FLAG.COM. Our FENCE-FLAGS® will compel VISUAL detection of a wire barrier at greater distances with their larger surface area and most important; MOTION movement as our hang tag (Black or White) hangs in free suspension from our Stainless Steel K-CLIP®, which attaches Slip Resistant.

    Reply
  3. Patrick Smyth

    Great work! Will there be other opportunities to volunteer for this work?
    Also, Mr. Kelata’s idea makes sense. Of course, it costs money, while the pieces of siding you may have used may have been donated. Maybe the 2 can work together with the clasps from the Fence-Flag company being bought and hooked on the free siding. One additional step might be to do away with the vinyl, oil-based product, and look for a sustainable, long-lasting replacement, like bamboo, for instance.

    Reply
  4. Polly du Pont

    Hopefully this is recycled plastic siding. Although the idea of bamboo is nice, I think, Patrick, that it would not be visible enough. I am not sure about the vision of birds, but the white stands out, hopefully, while the bamboo could just seem to be a large stem, piece of wood, so that the bird sees it as a vertical barrier, and not as an indication of a horizontal one. Perhaps clipping two vinyl siding close together would achieve at least the size benefit of the FENCE-FLAG. A wire clip that would allow the siding to spin in the wind might help by adding motion to the barrier ?

    Reply
  5. maria

    Great, and thanks. But, how do they see the white plastic flagging from a distance? And how distinguish it from snow?

    Reply
  6. Roman Weber

    While this may sound wonderful, what about the plastic? In about 2-3 yrs this stuff will become brittle and fall off and last for thousands of years. Maybe you could use metal strip instead?

    Reply
  7. Deborah Britt

    Please let the rancher know how grateful I am that he let you do this! Maybe Mr. Kaleta would sell Defenders some of his clips at cost in return for being acknowledged publicly for his assistance? I also like Patrick Smyth’s idea for using something ultimately biodegradable and not petroleum based.

    Reply

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