Ranchers take Proactive Approach to Increase Pronghorn Population
story by Jaime Tankersley
For the past 50 years residents across the Trans-Pecos region have embraced the diverse luster of landscape and plants that the Chihuahuan Desert offers. In recent years, a prominent decrease in the pronghorn antelope population has residents in fear of losing one of their historic featured inhabitants. The population of pronghorn antelope in the Trans-Pecos has declined by about 50 percent in the last 20 years.
Elements that have hindered the antelope herd numbers include drought, predators, and manmade obstacles. The net wire fence, a distinctive trademark from sheep and goat ranching legacies, has become recognized as one of the primary causes in suppressing antelope numbers.
The species is facing an assortment of problems ranging from habitat fragmentation and herd isolation, to an overall decrease in the population. Unlike deer, which leap over fences, antelope crawl under them to travel from pasture to pasture. The typical net wire fence creates a barrier that prevents the antelope's natural movement from summer mixed prairie range to the rougher mountain country. This transitional change in location provides protection from inclement weather, additional browse and forbs, as well as suitable fawning cover. All of these are needed means for the survival of the antelope.
Seeing a continuous struggle to improve population numbers, the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) formed a working partnership with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) to take an active stance on improving habitat conditions for the pronghorn. In 2010, the pronghorn wildlife habitat was added as a high ranking concern to the NRCS-Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP). WHIP is designed to benefit wildlife on primarily wildlife land, although agriculturally productive operations may qualify for funding.
Through the program, producers applied for cost-share to help off-set the implementation cost of new conservation measures that would facilitate recovery of the antelope. Eligible counties included: Brewster, Presidio, Jeff Davis, Culberson, Hudspeth, Reeves, and Pecos, all counties with well-documented pronghorn habitat.
Several conservation practices are eligible under the WHIP program. Prescribed grazing, brush management, contour ripping and seeding, fireguards, wildlife watering facilities, and pipelines can all be used to address the pronghorn population concern. Establishing pronghorn friendly fences topped the list for those that operated within the core population area.
An option for existing fences is a modification at half-mile intervals that provide a passage allowing pronghorns to traverse West Texas rangelands in their natural, historic grazing patterns. Despite the top speed of a pronghorn being over 50 miles an hour, they remain reluctant to jump or pass through fences. For some producers, installing a new fence was more feasible. Pronghorn friendly fences consist of a space of at least 16 inches from the bottom wire to the ground. This gap allows antelope to move freely yet keep livestock within a pasture.
Bill Hubbard's family has owned and operated the Bar Triangle Ranch, located outside of Marfa, Texas, for well over a century. For the past 20 years Hubbard has been replacing interior fences with fencing that he considers not only pronghorn friendly, but also people friendly. Utilizing the NRCS-WHIP program, Hubbard is already seeing positive results.
"We listen to the opportunities available through the NRCS, and we take advantage of the programs that allow for us to improve our ranch," Hubbard says.
"The previous fence did not have a gap big enough for the antelope or was net wire. Since we built the new fence, we have seen herd numbers increase and the antelope move through the ranch to pastures they have never occupied," he continues.
Hubbard is not the only producer in the Trans-Pecos that leaped at the opportunity of not only improving antelope numbers, but using the available practices to meet conservation goals on their operations.
In 2010, over 96,000 feet of fence were installed and more than 150,000 feet of pronghorn friendly fence is under contract to be installed through the WHIP program. Along with the fence installation, nearly 19,000 feet of pipeline, five watering facilities and over 16,500 acres of prescribed grazing will add to the conservation measures taken by both the NRCS and producers to increase the antelope population within the Trans-Pecos.
Haley Babb, NRCS district conservationist in Alpine, Texas, has seen the transformation and acceptance of the WHIP program and the positive impact it can have first hand. Working with local ranchers and WHIP participants, her office has provided a vast amount of technical assistance to those wanting to restore and maintain the pronghorn habitat.
"Due to the natural instinct of the pronghorn to travel significant distances to find quality food sources and habitat, it is essential that we take conservation measures to aid in this process," said Babb.
"NRCS is working hard with landowners to produce healthy rangelands and install pronghorn friendly conservation practices that aid in the effort to increase the local pronghorn population."
With the help of the NRCS, producers are regenerating a habitat that offers the pronghorn unhindered access to open grassland, suitable food and cover, with improved watering facilities. Positive results have been seen by landowners across the region. As the miles of antelope-friendly fence increase, the number of antelope seems to be increasing as well.
WHIP is only one of many 2008 Farm Bill Programs that landowners can utilized to address conservation concerns.
All of NRCS Farm Bill Programs are voluntary and have a continuous sign-up with periodic ranking cut off periods. NRCS encourages any person interested in participating in their programs to contact their local field office, located in the USDA Service Centers across Texas.
2011 represents the 76th year of NRCS "Helping People Help the Land." Since its inception in 1935, NRCS has expanded not only its conservation goals, but created unique partnerships with state and local governments and private landowners. It is these relationships that allow the agency to deliver conservation based on specific, local conservation needs, while accommodating state and national interests.
For more information on any of these programs, or to find your local NRCS service center visit http://www.tx.nrcs.usda.gov.