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Whether seen at the Roosevelt Arch entrance to Yellowstone, in the park or just roaming on private and public lands to the north and west, pronghorn antelope are a common fixture on the lands where many Montanans live and work. While you may see these adorable sprinters as often as your neighbors, their history and ongoing recovery is well worth a fresh look.

Pronghorn antelope have roamed the western plains for centuries. The pronghorn we see today are relics of the Pleistocene and are the sole survivors of a very diverse family, including ancient pronghorn species crowned with as many as six horns. The animals are built for speed, with hollow hair, large lungs and trachea, and fused leg bones that allow them to clock up to 60 mph sprints and sustain speeds of around 50 mph.

While some herds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are year-round residents, others still complete historic migrations. The pronghorn in Yellowstone National Park are one of the ecosystem’s last remaining migratory herds and are the last surviving population in the park. As pronghorn travel between summer range in the park to winter range on private and public lands outside park boundaries, fences have long been a barrier. The fastest land mammal in North America is not built to jump over fences, preferring to crawl underneath when possible. More often, unpassable fences stopped the animals in their tracks.

For decades, impassable fences north and west of Yellowstone park blocked access to critical winter range outside the park, causing its pronghorn population to plummet. By 2004, park biologists estimated that fewer than 200 animals remained in the northern park herd. The small herd was extremely susceptible to disease and severe weather, threatening their long-term survival. It was time for a solution that would allow pronghorn to migrate across the landscape, while continuing to meet the needs of landowners.

Since 2010, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) has worked with private landowners and public land managers to remove or modify fences along the historic migration routes north and west of the park. Through the hard work of more than 1,050 volunteers, including military veterans, students from across the country and community members, we have removed or modified over 40 miles of fences. Today, the Yellowstone pronghorn population has doubled as the animals are able to reach larger portions of their historic winter habitat in park adjacent landscapes.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is conducting research in the Paradise and Madison valleys of threats to winter ranges and migrations for wildlife including pronghorn. This work will help identify migration routes and barriers including fences, using GPS collars to track pronghorn movement. By working with landowners and biologists, we can identify other major barriers to pronghorn movement and develop creative solutions to remove them and increase habitat connectivity.

Amid the global pandemic shutting down volunteer opportunities this year, NPCA shifted to create a cost-share program that helps reduce the burden of fencing – which costs approximately $10,000 per linear mile – by assisting landowners in installing wildlife friendly fences in key habitat corridors. Through this new program, over four additional miles of traditional livestock fencing in the Madison Valley have been replaced so far this summer, with more opportunities to come.

However, work is still needed to ensure long-term survival.

The Yellowstone herd remains genetically isolated from resident herds in Montana and Idaho. In response, NPCA has expanded our pronghorn program to include historic migration routes west of the park in Montana’s Madison Valley and in Northeast Idaho. By expanding our work into restoring this critical pathway, we aim to reconnect Yellowstone’s last remaining pronghorn to existing regional herds and adequate winter range.

In addition to expanding access for wildlife, we must continue to work to reduce conflicts with humans, including those traveling to and from the world’s first national park. Yellowstone continues to see record visitation, which when coupled with population growth in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, could lead to increased barriers for pronghorn and other wildlife traveling beyond the park boundaries. Increased development and traffic that overlaps with wildlife migration corridors and winter habitat north and west of park is among the major issues that we will need to address. We must continue to support long-term planning and 21st century solutions to effectively work together in support of Montana’s conservation legacy.

Kelsie Dougherty is the Volgenau Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Fellow for the National Parks Conservation Association.

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