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Pulling barbed wire fence at the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge with ONDA



































Photographs Copyright© 2005-6 by Robert Speik. All Rights Reserved.


From our Calendar of interesting events:
Sunday through Wednesday, May 15 to18, 2005, Hart Mountain Fence Pull with Oregon Field Guide, free with ONDA
Oregon Field Guide is doing a special on Hart Mountain and we get to play a part! The fence pulls have been a significant part of the restoration at the Refuge and by the end of this summer, all old fence will have been removed. Help take out some of the last sections of obsolete barbed-wire fence, possibly appear on OFG, and soak in the hot springs at the cow-free Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. Contact Erin at (541)330-2638 or for more information.


More information about the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge

Hart Mountain National Antelope Range

"Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge derives its name from the massive fault block ridge that ascends abruptly nearly three quarters of a mile above the Warner Valley floor in a series of rugged cliffs, steep slopes, and knife-like ridges. The east side of the mountain is less precipitous, descending in a series of rolling hills and low ridges to the sagebrush-grasslands typical of southeastern Oregon and the Great Basin.

The rugged diversity of the terrain creates a rich mix of habitat types, home to more than 300 species of wildlife. Featured species include pronghorn antelope, California bighorn sheep, mule deer, sage grouse, and redband trout. The 269,000-acre refuge is one of the most expansive wildlife habitats in the arid West free of domestic livestock.

Since its creation in 1936 as a range for remnant herds of pronghorn antelope, management of the refuge has broadened to include conservation of all wildlife species characteristic of this high desert habitat and restoration of native ecosystems for the public's enjoyment, education, and appreciation.

For over a century, livestock grazing and fire suppression greatly influenced the native plants and wildlife on the refuge. A management plan completed in 1994 excludes livestock grazing from the refuge for 15 years (until 2009) and calls for the reintroduction of fire as a primary process to restore native plant communities and wildlife habitat. Prescribed fire is now used to restore native plant communities.

We closely monitor the effects of management actions such as prescribed fire on wildlife and their habitat to ensure management objectives are met. Hundreds of miles of interior fence were constructed to manage livestock and utilize vegetation. With livestock removed, the interior fence is no longer needed and reduces the natural movement of wildlife.

Removing this fence is a primary objective of the refuge. Riparian areas and upland watersheds are monitored annually to track the recovery of these critical habitats. If left unchecked, the Hart Mountain feral horse herd, currently about 200 animals, doubles about every 3-4 years. Feral horses are descended from domestic stock turned loose around the turn of the twentieth century.

Their grazing can devastate native vegetation and severely damage riparian habitat. They directly compete for forage and water with native wildlife. The 1990 Hart Mountain Comprehensive Management Plan calls for total removal of these horses. Over 300 species of birds and mammals are found on the refuge. Pronghorn, sage grouse, mule deer and California bighorn sheep are featured species.

The Hart Mountain California bighorn sheep herd provides the genesis for the majority of sheep reintroductions in Oregon. Its health is essential for the continued success of reintroducing this species throughout the northwest. Although the refuge has been historically known for its abundant big game, the extensive riparian habitat and unique old growth juniper woodland has also made it a mecca for serious birders."
--US Fish & Wildlife Service


More about the joy of pulling fence

'Fence Pulling' Becomes a Wilderness Pastime
There's a waiting list of volunteers to take down the barbed wire that crisscrosses an Oregon region designated by law as cow-free public land.
By Sam Howe Verhovek
Times Staff Writer

November 6, 2005

FIELDS, Ore. — If you had wanted to visit with John Witzel one recent warm and cloudless day, you would have driven 20 miles outside town, along a dusty ranch road here in the high desert of southeastern Oregon, then jumped on a horse.

You would have ridden five miles through the bull thistle cactus, juniper trees and lupin that dot the brown hills.

Once you got to Straw Hat Pass and let your horse have a drink at Wildhorse Creek, you would have traveled up a rust-colored canyon and come upon Witzel, a sinewy man wearing jeans, chaps and a purple cowboy shirt. He stood firmly, his arms circling as he cranked a large aluminum spool, and his face was dripping sweat.

Witzel looked as if he were trying to land a giant fish — though he was reeling in a 100-foot strand of rusty barbed-wire fence.

Here in the nation's first officially designated "cow-free wilderness," Witzel and dozens of other volunteers have been using Witzel's invention, a non-mechanized roller, to remove mile after mile of fencing, not far from the border with Nevada.

Many of the fences date back nearly a century, to an era of homesteaders and free cattle-grazing on federal land.

Environmental groups favor taking down the fences because, they say, doing so would restore the land to a more natural state. With ranching no longer allowed in the wilderness here, but with no federal funds available for fence removal, the job of taking down the barbed wire has fallen to the volunteers — as well as the horses, mules and llamas that carry the equipment, which by law must be non-mechanized, and that pack out the tight coils of old wire.

Many of these volunteers say they take tremendous satisfaction from "fence pulling," as they call it, describing it as an important step toward making the land a true wilderness.

"It's a small thing, and it's hard work, but it's something very tangible you can do," said Erik Westerholm, 46, a marketing specialist from Eugene, Ore., who has volunteered on a dozen fence pulls in the last three years.

"It's a rush, actually, when you see a half-dozen pronghorn antelope cruising through an area where, earlier that day, there was a fence," said Westerholm, who drove six hours from Eugene to help.

"That's enough of a payment right there."

A fence, said Stephen Gibbs, 52, a volunteer from the Portland suburbs, is "a huge statement that man is here and trying to control things. Taking it out says the opposite."

When Congress passed the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act five years ago, it finalized a complicated land swap that turned some land over to ranchers, but also set aside 175,000 acres of public land in the area as protected wilderness.

The unusual cow-free wilderness designation was the result of "a lot of negotiations between ranchers and environmental groups," said John Neeling, wilderness specialist for the area, which is overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Under the 1964 Wilderness Act, grazing is generally allowed on federal wilderness land where feasible.

The land, known as the Steens, is in a magnificent stretch of glacially carved escarpments, steppes and canyons, just south of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a flyway for migratory birds, including trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes.

In a reflection of the stormy weather here, settlers called one stream the Donner und Blitzen River — German for thunder and lightning.

Much of the area had been fenced — in fact, homesteading laws required that settlers who wanted to raise cattle had to fence the property.

Now that the fences can come down, an unusual coalition of local ranchers and outside environmental groups has stepped in to do the work.

The Oregon Natural Desert Assn., the Sierra Club and Wilderness Volunteers are three such organizations that have organized fence-pulling trips, which range from one to five days.

Many volunteers say removing even a single strand of barbed wire is satisfying.

"I think we need to clean up our collective messes," said Kristi Mergenthaler, 37, a botanist from the Medford, Ore., area, who traveled here with her 14-year-old son, Taro Shido, during the summer for a two-day fence pull in the Steens.

"I mean we, as humanity," said Mergenthaler. "It's not like I put the fence up or anything, but I feel a responsibility to help take it down."

Many ranchers here would take some offense to the notion that a fence amounts to a mess. But with the wilderness deal made and the rusty old fences no longer needed, several ranchers have done their part to help take them out, if a bit bemusedly as they observe urbanites struggle with the task. (Pulling a fence is not only hard work, it carries an occupational hazard from the barbs: Being up-to-date on a tetanus shot is highly advised.)

"I've put fences up, and I've taken fences down," said Marti Johnson, 70, a fourth-generation rancher, with a hearty laugh as she helped guide a 100-foot length of wire onto the spool as Witzel cranked it. "I've fixed a lot of fences in my time. A good fence doesn't bother me!"

Johnson and her husband once had cattle on nearly 10,000 acres here. They sold their ranch, now 160 acres, to a couple fromPortland a few years ago, and now they live on the land rent-free.

So far, about 25 miles of fencing have been painstakingly removed, with an official inventory left of about 60 more miles — although, the BLM's Neeling said, "we keep finding more all the time." About 25% of the wire is salvageable for use elsewhere on federal lands.

Pulling just a mile of fence can take a 10-volunteer team a day or more. Neeling will often help fence-pulling groups get started, and check on them while they are working in the rocky area.

"We can't keep people away," he said. "We're beating them off with sticks, practically. They come from all walks of life."

Witzel, a fourth-generation eastern Oregonian whose grandfather came here as a land surveyor in the 1870s, leads guided trips into the Steens for a living. The contraption he invented to coil the wire can be either packed in on a mule or carried like a backpack using attachable straps.

Witzel sold his first machine to the BLM three years ago for $2,500, and two others for $1,500 apiece. He also volunteers from time to time to coil the wire and take it out, as he did one day recently with help from Johnson, the retired rancher, and two mules named Dusty and Periwinkle.

"Necessity is the mother of invention," Witzel said with a laugh as he paused from his work. "It'd be easier to do this with a tractor and a power roller, of course, but that'd be contrary to the law under wilderness designation. You're not supposed to bring any noisy machines in here, unless it's for a human emergency."

His hand-rolling device allows the job to be done about four times more quickly than trying to roll up the wire like a garden hose. It also enables the coil to be wound more tightly, making it possible to wind as much as a quarter-mile of fencing onto one spool.

The fence removal is expected to take at least another three summers, but probably with no shortage of volunteers — in fact, for several trips this year, there was a waiting list.

"It's a chance that really doesn't come along every day," said Jill Workman, chair of the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club and a veteran of seven fence pulls. "It's really a chance to re-wild the place."

Or as Gibbs put it: "When you work your way up a canyon, rolling up a fence, and then you turn around and you can hardly tell the fence was ever [there], it's just a great feeling.",0,755875,print.story?coll=la-home-nation




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