Barbed wire and pronghorn

Walking composition

“We’ve got a greater part of humanity working on making our social media feeds more persuasive than we have on making clean water more accessible.” —Douglas Rushkoff, Team Human

I spent this last weekend doing volunteer conservation work for Artemis Sportswomen. I’m in the midst of doing a year-long advocacy training program through Artemis (which is an arm of the National Wildlife Federation) over Zoom, and it was a relief to get offline, meet everyone in person, and go outside to do some hands-on conservation work.

Pictured above is the work site, a slice of over 70,000 acres of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) rangeland in Horse Prairie, a 5-hour drive to a part of southwest Montana I don’t think I’ve ever even been to—close to Virginia City, a mining ghost town that I visited as a school kid, and south of Dillon, which I probably only went to for high school debate tournaments. Montana is a very large state, something that’s easy to forget up here in the tourist-saturated northwest pocket that encompasses Glacier National Park. The Horse Prairie region is not crowded. It’s the kind of unpeopled that prompts descriptors like “lonely” and “desolate.” The campground we stayed at, grassland sloping down to a reservoir, was open and silent except for flocks of geese, possibly cormorants but I didn’t get out my binoculars, and a solitary Western meadowlark (another bird whose call you should treat yourself to if you haven’t heard one).

I don’t think the birds find it desolate.

The work involved adapting a 3/4-mile stretch of barbed wire fencing to make it pronghorn*-friendly. Pronghorn run fast but don’t leap, so they almost never jump fences, which means they have to crawl under them, leading to serious injuries, some of which the coordinator showed us pictures of and I don’t think I’ll ever get out of my head.

In case this sounds like I know a whole lot about pronghorn, I’m basically just repeating what the coordinator instructed us in before we bounced our way up a two-track to the fence site and spent many scorching-hot hours removing barbed wire and replacing it with smooth wire. (This short video shows the differences between the two and how pronghorn respond. Also, the other volunteers did know quite a bit about pronghorn, as most of them had hunted the animals. I haven’t had that opportunity yet.) It was hours of tedious, hot work prying T-clips from the fence posts, trimming sagebrush, rolling up the barbed wire, unrolling new wire, attaching new T-clips and measuring every stretch to make sure it fell between 16-18 inches (high enough for pronghorn; too low for cattle to sneak through).** Knowing that the non-barbed wire’s smoothness will slide over pronghorns’ backs made me feel like I’d done something actively good for the world, at least for this one weekend.

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I’m in the midst of reading Kristin Ohlson’s book The Soil Will Save Us, all about soil science and the most up-to-date, on the ground research on microorganisms, loss of soil vitality, desertification, and—something I thought about a lot while standing on that bone-dry, hard-packed sagebrush land this weekend—the increasing understanding that a lack of wild, free-range grazing animals has played a huge role in thousands of years of worldwide soil degradation.

I learned last year from a local cattle rancher who’s deeply enthusiastic about restorative agriculture that cows’ grazing habits accelerate soil death, but that land still needs hooved grazing animals to nurture soil health, which is why he has established practices that mimic the way bison grazed the landscape instead. There’s a lot about this understanding in The Soil Will Save Us, including the multi-billion-year evolution of soil-plant symbiosis itself, and a pointed quip about Montana’s $50-million failed effort to eradicate knapweed: “They may as well proclaim it the state flower because there are now more than ever.”

Which was damned depressing to read, but as I look at my yard full of knapweed and thistles, I’m trying to take on the point that the plants’ flourishing presence is a sign of biodiversity loss, not a call for greater control. Which means I need a different approach but I don’t know what yet. Should I plant kale among the biggest patches of knapweed to encourage the deer to graze there so they churn up the hard-packed soil a bit? We certainly have enough deer around. Should I focus on pulling the knapweed and just trying to stop the thistles from flowering? I don’t know.

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Replacing barbed wire was one of those experiences that bring home the more nuanced relationships we could have with technology, if as a society we became more intentional about its uses. Ideally, I’d love to see all barbed wire fencing disappear. I’d love to see almost all fencing disappear and the bison let loose again, frankly. I know that’s not going to happen, but the kind of collaborative work that can figure out how to make fencing more wildlife-friendly and, crucially, persuade people to enact beneficial change, is the kind of work that I know goes on constantly, restoring our collective interconnectedness without ever being reported on in national news.

There are many things on fire, including literally parts of my state, but somewhere close to where you live somebody is doing the equivalent of improving the lives of wildlife simply by changing the kinds of fencing they have to navigate.

There’s a metaphor in that, as usual, but it’s one we each have to iterate for ourselves.

Bonus photo: Lots of barbed wire. A lot. Of barbed. Wire. Wire that no longer has an existence torturing poor pronghorn that are just trying to get from one place to another. Those bundles of wire are a win.

*I had thought that pronghorn and antelope were the same thing, but when I told a friend about this weekend, she corrected me. They are not in the same family, and though the pronghorn is unique to North America, its closest relative is the giraffe.

**There are a lot more details to this project, including that the coordinator, from the National Wildlife Federation, did his master’s thesis on fence-mapping. The more knowledgable Rachelle Schrute is going to be posting more about the project soon, and time-lapse video of our work, on her Instagram page, if you’re on Instagram and want to follow her. Rachelle’s a naturalist guide in Yellowstone National Park and an all-around badass who does a lot of media work for conservation.

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Some stuff to read, listen to, or watch:

  • The long drive allowed me time to listen to all 8 episodes of the Fireline podcast from Montana Public Radio. Really enjoyable short episodes about our new and old reality of living with wildfire. I particularly appreciated episode 3 on paleoecology and episode 4 on the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribe’s experience bringing back fire and seeing native camas flowers swell in its wake.

  • This might be a tough one for some, but I found this conversation on Blood Origins about trophy hunting’s ties with conservation to be really valuable. Particularly interesting because the guest, University of Gloucestershire entomologist and conservation ecologist Adam Hart, is very anti-hunting, especially trophy hunting, while also laying bare its current necessity for conservation. It’s a deftly handled difficult conversation. (That link is to Spotify because I can’t link to a specific episode on Blood Origin’s website, but the podcast is anywhere you listen. It’s episode 76.)

  • Everyone’s favorite perennial gripe about the English language is that its spelling conventions make no sense. Linguist Arika Okrent writing in Aeon says that this is due less to mishmashes of culture—all languages are subject to those ebbs and flows—and more to technology and timing: “The rise of printing caught English at a moment when the norms linking spoken and written language were up for grabs, and so could be hijacked by diverse forces and imperatives that didn’t coordinate with each other, or cohere, or even have any distinct goals at all.”

  • I have long been in love with Japanese artist Katsushika Hosukai’s woodblock print “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” (I know I’m not alone in that!) ever since seeing it at The Met in New York, and enjoyed this 17-minute video about the historical context of the artist’s life during Japan’s isolationist Shōgun period.

  • MIT Technology Review’s third episode of a four-part jobs and hiring series for its In Machines We Trust podcast focused on artificial intelligence games used in hiring, which, unfortunately, seem to be weighed heavily against women and people with disabilities. There is nothing we can do to stop AI and algorithms playing an increasing role in job placement and hiring. I can even see great arguments for it being useful and beneficial. But, like with barbed-wire fencing, its implementation can’t just be up to monopolists and rentiers who benefit from extracting the most out of humanity and the rest of life in the name of profit.

  • That’s it for today! I’ve been camping a lot, and usually bring magazine backlogs to catch up on. I’m working my way through Montana Quarterly, but most of it isn’t online.