Antelope Refuge Goes Wireless

For nearly a century, cattle and antelope competed for grazing rights in southeast Oregon on what is now Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. In 1994, after a long court battle by environmental groups, the federal government stopped cattle grazing on Hart Mountain for a 15-year study period. The result has been a natural paradise. Pronghorn antelope share the 275,000-acre refuge with more than 330 species of wildlife, birds and plants. Bighorn sheep climb the rugged rims of the mountain, mule deer roam the ravines, and hawks circle overhead. With the end of cattle grazing, native grasses and wildflowers are reclaiming their ground.

Hart Mountain volunteer teams remove a mile and a half of antelope-ensnaring barbed wire every day. It’s tough but rewarding work.
Dennis J. Cleary

But old barbed wire left by ranchers complicates the spring antelope migration. Young fawns who can"t jump the fence may impale themselves on the metal as they try to crawl underneath. Adult antelopes often don"t see the fence and try to run through it. But volunteer groups, such as the Sierra Club and Wilderness Volunteers, have taken on the endless task of removing miles of barbed wire. Refuge manager Chris Duppel says, "There are more than 300 miles of barbed wire. Work crews remove three to four miles per trip, or 20 miles per year. This project will take us beyond the year 2009."

Volunteer parties, who camp at one of two sites, work six- to eight-hour days removing one and a half miles of wire each day. As one group cuts the clips on three-strand wire fences, another lays down the strands. The teams then thread the strands into an automatic wire bailer. The last team pulls up the metal fence posts. The refuge sells fence posts to ranchers and bailed wire to a local smelting company.

One work crew tore down a wild mustang corral with 25 tube panels, each weighing more than 200 pounds. The corral had been set up by the federal government to remove 200 wild mustangs that were competing with antelope feeding areas.

At the end of the day, volunteers often take part in early evening hikes, stargazing and hot-spring soakings. One or two days are set aside for special birding, antelope observation and hiking trips on Hart Mountain.

As volunteers leave the refuge, they take satisfaction in knowing that antelope, not cattle, have grazing rights now, and Hart Mountain is finally going wireless.