Free at Last

No longer blocked by a rancher's deadly fence, thousands of pronghorn are now migrating safely to winter feeding grounds in Wyoming

  • Dan Neal
  • Feb 01, 1992
Television told the story in living color: frost-covered pronghorn, blocked from their traditional winter feeding grounds, huddled in death against a mesh and barbed-wire fence. As many as 1,000 perished during the brutal Wyoming winter of 1983, most of them from starvation.

The fence, which rancher Taylor Lawrence finished building earlier that year around 20,000 acres of rangeland, stopped the pronghorn dead in their tracks as they pushed toward a vast expanse of sagebrush called Red Rim. Almost before the last post hole was dug, the fence had set off one of the most heated conservation debates in state history. The ensuing legal battle dragged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Along the way, as a result of exhaustive efforts by conservationists, the fence came tumbling down--or rather, Lawrence was ordered to replace it with a barrier that allowed pronghorn to pass safely through it. But for years the future of a crucial pronghorn winter feeding site hung in doubt. Then last spring, following some deft maneuvering by wildlife officials, the state bought the former ranch, fence and all, bringing the saga of Red Rim to a hopeful close and ensuring that in future years the animals will be able to migrate safely to foraging areas.

The collapse of the fence was a ringing victory for conservationists, notably the National Wildlife Federation and its affiliate, the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, which led the court fight. More important was the broader victory it represented: In the first test of its kind, the rights of wildlife prevailed over rights of a private landowner. "This case takes a giant step toward guaranteeing that free-roaming wildlife will continue to have access to public lands," says Tom Lustig, the NWF attorney who handled the case.

Despite its scientific name, Antilocapra, which means "antelope-goat," the pronghorn is neither antelope nor goat. Rather, it is a separate genus that evolved only in North America over the past 20 million years. Western settlers drove it to near-extinction around the turn of the century, but, aided by game management tactics, the animal rebounded. Now with a population that exceeds 400,000 in Wyoming alone, the pronghorn is one of North America's most abundant mammals.

Thousands of pronghorn depend on Red Rim for food and shelter during the winter. The area strikes some observers as nothing more than a patch of treeless prairie spreading over tens of thousands of acres into the Red Desert southwest of the community of Rawlins. But for pronghorn, Red Rim offers a place to endure winter's rigors. Winds whipping over the high plain keep the sagebrush, a pronghorn staple, free of snow. Rocks and crevices provide shelter from icy gusts.

Scientists had long suspected Red Rim was important to pronghorn. But its true value was not known until biologists Dave Moody of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Bill Alldredge of Colorado State University began to follow the animals in the late 1970s and put together a clearer picture of their movements.

Unlike deer and elk, pronghorn do not build up fat reserves when food is plentiful, so they need year-round access to forage. When instinct tells them a storm is brewing, North America's fastest animals move to wintering grounds. The more severe the winter, the larger the number of pronghorn that head to Red Rim.

Lawrence's $150,000 fence zigzagged for 28 miles over an immense checkerboard of public and private property, locking out as much as 80 percent of the pronghorn winter range. Though the rancher owned only about 15,000 acres, he controlled grazing rights on thousands of acres of public land. He argued that he put up a fence only to keep pronghorn from grazing on crested wheatgrass he planted for cattle. More likely, conservationists argue, he wanted to diminish the land's value as pronghorn habitat so he could reap a potential profit of perhaps millions of dollars from mining coal there.

The Rocky Mountain Energy Company, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad, was interested in tapping the rich coal deposits under Red Rim. But the need to protect pronghorn habitat would remain an obstacle to mining as long as the animals returned there. Hence, the fence.

The first pronghorn bunched up at the fence in October 1983. Tom Dougherty, then-president of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, worried that the animals, deprived of forage, would die. When it happened, he invited "NBC Nightly News" to take a walk along the fence. The pictures of dead pronghorn on national TV incited a storm of protest. Lawrence gave in.

For two years, the rancher allowed state game officials--at public expense--to pull up an 8-mile segment of the fence during winter, then rebuild it the following spring. "But there was no assurance," says Lustig. "that he always would allow it, or even that 8 miles was enough."

In 1985, the National Wildlife Federation sued Lawrence in federal court, arguing that his fence violated the century-old Unlawful Inclosures Act. The judge, remarking that the fence did nothing "but kill antelope," ordered Lawrence to modify it or tear it down.

Lawrence rebuilt the fence, leaving a gap at the bottom for pronghorn, yet he appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. The high court refused to hear his case, thus upholding the lower court's decision. In the midst of all this legal activity, Lawrence turned his ranch over to the Prudential Insurance Company, his mortgage holder. One question remained: What was to become of Red Rim?

The answer came last February. Tom Dougherty, now NWF's western division staff director, got word that Prudential wanted to sell. Acting quickly, he contacted Art Reese, chief of habitat and technical services for the Game and Fish Department, and a meeting was arranged with Prudential officials. "Time was of the essence," recalls Reese, who negotiated much of the deal from a hospital bed following a car accident. "This was a oncein-a-lifetime opportunity."

In May, Game and Fish officials approved the purchase of Lawrence's former ranch for $710,500, passing to the state ownership or control of some 63,000 acres of Wyoming rangeland. Said Dougherty when he heard the news, "That's going to make a lot of people feel good."

Not long ago, the idea that Red Rim could be transformed from a certain strip mine to state-protected habitat "was beyond anyone's imagination," says Dougherty. Yet today pronghorn are again free to travel to ancient wintering grounds--proof, he says, that "wherever there is perseverance and grass-roots support, good things can happen."

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