The image of a barbed wire fence stretching across a field of prairie grasses and sage brush has been the inspiration for paintings, poems, and the general allure of the “wild wild west” for decades. However, the vast fencing infrastructure throughout eastern Montana doesn’t exist without impacts on the native species of the region.

Fence with markers
In areas that are both summer and winter habitat, black and white markers are used to increase contrast and visibility to the birds. Photo by Tom Heely
Prairie species evolved in a relatively flat grassland habitat and have trouble navigating immovable and widespread objects such as fences. In the case of the ground dwelling and low-flying greater sage grouse, wire fence strands are nearly invisible. Studies show fatal fence collisions by sage grouse are at more than one strike per mile of fence during breeding season–a rate deemed conservative because carcasses are quickly scavenged and difficult to count. Removing fence is one solution to extirpate barriers, but this option is not always possible on working lands.

Little Investment, Big Returns

In areas where fence must remain, the simple act of marking or “flagging” wire strands with plastic tabs increases visibility to sage grouse.

Fence tragedy
Markers placed on wire fence can reduce collision mortality by over 80%. Photo by Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media
Not all fences pose equal risks to sage grouse. Research shows that 73% of grouse collisions with fences take place within one-third mile of sage grouse breeding ground also known as lek, and 93% occur within a mile. Factors contributing to a high-risk collision rate include proximity to leks, wintering areas and migration corridors.

On average, high-risk fence segments make up about 10% of all fences in sage grouse habitat. So each mile of fence flagging has potential to reduce mortality over a much larger area.

Boots on the Ground

Because reducing collisions with fences will yield immediate and ongoing reductions in sage grouse mortality, NWF has launched a project to mark up to 250 miles of fence in areas identified as critical for species recovery in Eastern Montana. NWF is currently identifying high-risk areas, and working with landowners and land managers to locate fences within those high-risk zones.

Once fences are identified, crews will flag the top strand of fence with plastic markers, thus ensuring fences in core areas become visible, and most importantly avoidable to sage grouse.

Sage Grouse
Marked fences are a good way to mitigate the existing infrastructure of a working landscape. Photo by USDA
Make sure to follow along this summer, as I will periodically blog on NWF’s progress from the field. If you would like more information about the project please contact me, Hayley Connolly-Newman, the Sage Grouse Project Coordinator at the Northern Rockies and Pacific Regional Center.