A conservation project that spans hundreds of kilometers across southern Alberta is giving a once nearly extinct species a head start – or rather, a head start.
The Alberta Fish and Game Association and the Alberta Conservation Association have completed another season with their Pronghorn Corridor Improvement Project – modifications to fences that help the pronghorn stay healthier and less vulnerable to predators.
The pronghorn is a horned, deer-like mammal commonly referred to as an “antelope,” although it is not technically a member of the antelope family. They were once abundant in the prairies of North America, but nearly became extinct until large parts of their habitats have been protected by conservation efforts. In Canada, they are now found in southwestern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta.
The pronghorn is the second fastest land animal in the world, after the cheetah, and is able to run at speeds of 50 to 70 kilometers per hour over long distances.
But they are not good at crossing the fences that now crisscross the prairies.
Although American antelopes are physically able to jump fences, they prefer to go under them, according to Paul Jones, senior biologist at the Alberta Conservation Association.
“We had a picture of an antelope that had all the hairs on its back removed and had scars that looked like frostbite. And we started to wonder, ‘What is this from?'” Jones said.
“We quickly realized that it was crossing a landscape full of fences.”
When antelopes sneak under fences, they can lose their hair, which in winter can lead to disease and frostbite.
Predators, like coyotes, can also use the fences to prey on the American antelope, Jones said.
560 km of custom fencing to help the pronghorn to date
So the two conservation groups decided to find a way to help.
They worked with landowners to replace the bottom strands of barbed wire fences with smooth wire and raise them 46 centimeters.
Together, the two groups have completed approximately 560 kilometers of fence adjustments on public and private land since 2009.
This year, fences were adjusted around Orion, south of Medicine Hat, and near Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.
“The American antelope is an iconic prairie species and it is also only found here in North America … So having the ability to be able to move through the landscape will ensure their persistence in this landscape,” said Jones.
Landowners originally skeptical but are now lining up
The majority of the project is carried out by volunteers and the support of the landowners who have agreed to have the work done on their properties.
“They were skeptical at first and we ended up working with a few really big landowners,” said TJ Schwanky, Wildlife Project Leader for the Alberta Fish and Game Association.
“We couldn’t do it without the buy-in from the landowners. I mean, they graciously left us on their land to do this project. Without them, there would be no way this would happen. But if we did. hadn’t proven ourselves, they never would have bought either. ”
Schwanky said there is now a waiting list of landowners to participate in the program.