Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Fence Pull

On a crisp August morning, a group of volunteers, conservation representatives, and National Wildlife Federation (NWF) staff gathered around a llama trailer at the West Fork Boulder trailhead. The llamas and people had come together for a unified purpose: increase connectivity for wildlife in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. How can llamas impact wildlife migration connectivity? In this case, they played a key role in carrying out metal fence posts and fencing removal materials from a grazing allotment fence over 3 miles into a wilderness area.

A crew member and four-legged field assistant carry fencing pliers into a fence pull site. (Photo courtesy of Ilona Wilde, MWF.

A crew member and four-legged field assistant carry fencing pliers into a fence pull site. Photo courtesy of Ilona Wilde, MWF.

As the crew of 14 people, 6 llamas, and 1 dog set off on the trail, the cool morning air quickly faded to heat as the sun warmed its way through the absence of trees from a decade past wildfire burn. 

This area is an important wildlife migration corridor for the many wildlife species in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem including grizzly bears, black bears, elk, pronghorn, and mule deer. Removing barbed wire fences helps increase connectivity and reduce injury from fence collisions, especially for species that have evolutionarily adapted to travel under these fences versus attempting to jump over, such as pronghorn. In the West Boulder, the primary objective of the fence removal was to remove dilapidated materials from the wilderness as livestock grazing is being phased out in this area.

Upon arrival at the grassy meadow site, everyone grabbed fencing pliers and wire cutters and began taking apart a rusted quarter mile stretch of fencing. Once removed, the 4 strand barbed wire was wound up into rolls and wrapped in towels and padded mats to be loaded onto the outside of everyone’s packs.

The llamas took the brunt of the load by packing out the metal posts, and the group slowly led them back along the trail with the outside of their own packs loaded down with wire.

A crew member carefully wrapping barbed wire fencing into packable rounds. Photo courtesy of Ilona Wilde, MWF.
Crew members loading metal posts on the llamas panniers and barbed wire onto individuals packs Photos by Kit Fischer and Ilona Wilde

Crew members loading metal posts on the llamas panniers and barbed wire onto individuals packs. Photos by Kit Fischer and Ilona Wilde.

Through the heat of the day and weight of heavy packs, the crew morale stayed high. After unloading the first round of barbed wire and posts, the group ambitiously set off to remove one last section of fence on the other side of the river. The location for the final project turned into an early evening hike along hillsides of ripe raspberries and black currants overlooking the river. The final stretch of fence was removed and packed out, and the crew headed back to camp for a well deserved celebration. 

The West Fork Boulder River photo by Ilona Wilde MWF

The West Fork Boulder River. Photo by Ilona Wilde, MWF.

People jumped in the river to cool off, and all cheered around a BBQ to commemorate the end of a long 12-hour and 17-mile hiking day. It was hard work, but worth it. These efforts are part of a regional effort to remove retired fences and decrease wildlife collisions. Projects like these are essential for connecting wildlife migration routes and improving migration corridors. 

A huge thank you to Kit Fischer and Randy Newberg for their thoughtful planning and staff from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, NWF, National Parks Conservation Association, and volunteers for their hard work on this collaborative conservation project.


If you are interested in learning more about wildlife programs across the Northern Rockies region, please contact Kit Fischer at FischerK@nwf.org or if interested in becoming involved with future field work opportunities, please contact Ilona Wilde at ilona@mtwf.org

By Western- South Central Field Representative Ilona Wilde.

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Jeff Lukas – MWF Elk Campaign Manager

Jeff Lukas

Elk Campaign Manager

Jeff Lukas is a passionate conservationist who has been fishing and hunting his entire life. Whether it’s floating a small stream chasing trout, pursuing elk in the high country, or waiting in a blind for ducks to set their wings, Jeff is always trying to bring more people afield to show them what we are trying to protect. He loves being in the arena, and he will never shy away from conversations about the beautiful and unique corners of Big Sky country.