JACKSON, Wyo. | A pronghorn lingered nearby as Steve Morriss removed barbed wire from an obsolete fence on the Pinto Ranch in Grand Teton National Park.
"It waited for us to be done, said 'thank you' and then went on its way," Morriss said about the encounter, which happened years ago but left an indelible impression.
He's been disassembling and bailing barbed wire to help wildlife ever since.
For about a decade Morriss has been a devoted member of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation's volunteer fence pull team. The volunteers and staffers remove and modify fencing that for one reason or another is no longer needed and creates a hazard for wildlife. As the foundation approaches its 25th anniversary this year, it also nears another milestone: the removal of 200 miles of unnecessary fencing.
The effort had Morriss, 25 other volunteers, and foundation staff in the field on a recent Saturday removing almost a mile of fence from a relic pasture near the Wyoming Game and Fish Department's Horse Creek elk feedground. They worked at the junction of the Bridger-Teton National Forest and a swath of state-owned land about 10 miles southeast of Jackson off Highway 89.
Livestock have stopped grazing on the national forest parcel, so the barbed-wire fence is no longer needed, said Aly Courtemanch, a Wyoming Game and Fish wildlife biologist and Wildlife Foundation board member. Removing the fence eliminates an obstacle for migrating elk and mule deer, she said.
The three-strand fence was a hazard for animals trying to jump over the fence or crawl under it. One by one the strands came out as volunteers pulled giant, rusted staples from wooden posts.
Then they rolled up the wire and hauled it away to be recycled. The group on Saturday had mechanical assistance: along with a manual wire winder, they also had a Game and Fish power winder at their disposal. A small tractor turned the winder mounted on its back.
One volunteer, Dick Klene, an 18-year veteran of the fence pull team, welcomed the help.
"I know we didn't have a winder when I started," he said.
Along with removing lengths of barbed wire from fences, the team also modifies fences to protect wildlife in areas where fencing is still needed for cattle. Tactics include lowering the height of the fence and replacing the top with either a smooth wire or smooth wooden pole. They also raise and replace the bottom wire with a smooth wire to protect calves and fawns that might crawl underneath the fence.
Keeping barbed wire in the middle of the fence and smooth wires on the top and bottom protects wildlife and grazing cattle. Wild ungulates typically go under or over fences, but cattle try to push through, said Jon Mobeck, the foundation's executive director.
The nonprofit's goal is to reduce the total number of obstacles an animal might run into along its migration path, Mobeck said. An elk might encounter 100 fences during migration, he said, and all those obstacles add up.
"We look at the landscape scale," he said. "Why not remove every possible fence to preserve movement into the future?"
The Horse Creek fence pullers were poised to keep removing fencing in pursuit of that goal.
"You see that you did something when you're done," Lori Tillemans said. "And you get to see beautiful country you don't usually get to see."
Maurine Karabatsos agreed, saying she liked seeing a tangible result to her work.
Many of Saturday's volunteers were fence-removal pros.
"There's a lot of veterans that show up, so we get it done quickly," Arne Johanson said.
"There's a concrete satisfaction to the work," Beverly Boynton said. "It's fun doing a little cowboy-type work."