The barbed wire fence that marked the boundary between the Wetzsteon Ranch and national forest lands was so old that it disappeared in places where it was embedded under the bark of the pine trees that it had been stapled to decades ago.
In places parallel to its edge, the game trails were worn deep where migrating mule deer and elk paced along the wire looking for a place to squeeze through.
The deer, elk and bighorn sheep that use the area won’t face that challenge anymore.
This week, Mule Deer Foundation volunteers and staff from three states removed close to five miles of the rust-covered fence as part of a project to both improve wildlife habitat and to make it easier for Wetzsteon to manage his cattle.
“It’s really a win/win situation for both wildlife and the landowner,” said Mule Deer Foundation Sapphire Range Chapter president Tom Stensatter. “For the chapter, it’s an opportunity to do some boots-on-ground work that can really make a difference … We give Bob (Wetzsteon) a lot of credit for the stewardship of the land. This place is wonderful.”
The mule deer that migrate through the Wetzsteon home place in the East Fork of the Bitterroot make the long journey twice a year between their winter range around Salmon, Idaho, to the lush summertime grasses found in Montana's mountains as far away as Wise River.
The project came about in the “it’s a small world” fashion that sometimes happens in rural places like the Bitterroot Valley and Salmon, where lots of people often have some kind of relation to one another.
Seventeen years ago, Jessie Shallow was the wildlife technician who documented the migration of mule deer between the two states. Turns out her husband-to-be was flying the airplane she rode in to track the radio collars fitted to the deer. Her husband is related to Bob Wetzsteon, whose family has deep roots in the East Fork of the Bitterroot.
Shallow now works as a partnership biologist with the Mule Deer Foundation and Idaho Fish and Game.
At a birthday party, Wetzsteon told her about the old boundary fence and his wish that it was gone.
“He told me it wasn’t needed anymore,” Shallow said. “And that it wasn’t good for wildlife. It was his idea to remove the fence. He really works hard to live in harmony with the wildlife on the ranch and the surrounding area."
The Mule Deer Foundation has made removing old fences along migration routes in the west a priority for years.
On average, mule deer have to navigate 250 fences twice annually during spring and fall migrations, Shallow said. Older deer can often jump the fences, but that comes with the potential of a fatal mistake if their back legs become entangled in the wire. Yearling deer often have to find a hole in the fence or a place to crawl underneath.
“They end up expending energy that can be hard on them in the long run,” Shallow said.
At the Sapphire Range Chapter’s spring banquet, Shallow asked Stensatter if that organization would be interested in putting together a project to take out the old wire. From there, the idea quickly became a reality as others from Montana, Idaho and North Dakota signed on to help.
Mule Deer Foundation regional director Marshal Johnson of Bismarck, North Dakota, made the drive up the East Fork with a Dakota Wire Winder that attached to the front of a Bobcat provided free of charge from Bobcat of Missoula. Full Curl Manufacturing of Hamilton provided a flatbed trailer to haul the Bobcat to the ranch.
It takes a lot of different groups and businesses working together to make projects like this one a reality, Johnson said.
“Old dilapidated fences like this are great for entangling both wildlife and livestock,” Johnson said. “Projects like this one benefit landowners, sportsmen and wildlife. It’s a triple win. They wouldn’t happen without the volunteers who help in a lot of different ways.”
Just up the mountainside, Sapphire Range Chapter member Sean Ashby was busy rolling up a length of barbed wire that had broken off the from longer strands being pulled onto the Dakota Wire Winder. Some blood trickled down his forearm from an earlier encounter with the sharp barbs.
“This is going to save a lot of animal’s lives,” Ashby said. “That’s the whole purpose. I look at putting on the banquet as a necessary part of being able to get outside and do projects like this. This is what it’s all about.”
Stensatter shopes to see the local organization continue to grow so it can continue to get projects like this one accomplished, he said.
“A lot of focus goes to Ravalli County Fish and Game Association, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the NRA,” Stensatter said. “We want people to know we’re here too and we’re getting work done.”
“The game trails along this fence line looked like a major highway in places,” he said. “There are a lot of animals using this area. Having this fence gone is going to make a big difference for them.”
Stensatter urged anyone wanting to learn more about the local chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation to give him a call at 406-381-7510.
The next phase of fence removal is already being planned on the Wetzsteon property.