Fence-mending brings Bitterroot ranches together

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Fence-mending brings Bitterroot ranches together

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Read the original story from The Missoulian's August 5, 2015 issue.

FLORENCE – Sometimes, bad fences make better neighbors.

The traces of past ranching along the Bitterroot River are getting an upgrade that helps today’s cattle operations, wildlife researchers and young students learning about both.

For MPG Ranch education and community outreach manager Joshua Lisbon, it’s a perfect combination.

“Most of the fence was either overbuilt or falling down,” Lisbon said of the MPG Ranch’s perimeter. “It didn’t keep cattle in or wildlife out.”

Some lines on the MPG Ranch’s southern boundary still have the 3-foot-high woven sheep fence topped with four or even five strands of barbed wire.

As the 10,000-acre ranch is transitioning into a private biological research station, its employees are removing almost all the internal fence network and the cattle that used to graze there. But it still wants to be good neighbors with adjacent livestock operations. 

Fence conditions were troublesome on the northern boundary, where gaps were allowing cattle to wander across fords in the Bitterroot River and get into MPG's meadows.

MPG had just finished putting up an electric fence on its bank of the river last year when the northern ranch changed owners and the new neighbors came to visit.

Bart and Wendy Morris and their Oxbow Cattle Co. wanted to apply new herding and fencing methods to their grass-fed beef cows. That meant pulling off much of the old barbed wire and replacing it with a “wildlife friendly” design that combines barbed and smooth wire.

The fence can be four strands wide and pointy for the two weeks when cattle need to be kept in place on a pasture, or compressed to two strands for the other 50 weeks of the year so elk and deer can move freely.

In addition to hosting professional researchers, MPG Ranch also teams with Missoula-based Ecology Project International to give young people four-week intensive outdoor learning experiences.

One component of those field trips is service work. The fencing upgrade provided a perfect opportunity to combine lessons in land management, fresh air and fence-mending.

On Wednesday, EPI students Dylan Findlay of Lolo, Jordan Lyman and Emmaline Kitterman of Moscow, Idaho, Grace Piette of Oakland, California, Lili Buchanan of Thompson Falls and Andrei Heaton of Missoula followed twisting cattle trails into the Bitterroot River bottom.

Each had a personal study project with an experienced researcher, ranging from soil microbiology to bat ecology. But this day, Morris and fellow rancher Dane Rogers showed them how to mark and nail the collapsible wire brackets to a new line of fence posts along the river.

“It really pays to learn through demonstration,” Findlay said as he positioned another bracket for nailing. “I’m also studying the butterflies up here, which is using my eyes a lot more than my hands. You need to focus, whether you’re swinging a hammer or doing research.”

“You feel like you’re being helpful and directly involved with what you’re studying, Kitterman added as she wrapped a bandage around a nicked fingertip. “I kind of look forward to fencing. It’s both fun and meditative.”

And when it’s all done, Lisbon said it will give future students a chance to see side-by-side comparisons of how domestic livestock and wild ungulates affect the land.

The river bottoms provide cover for up to 500 elk and many more deer. Over the past year, volunteers have contributed more than 600 hours removing or upgrading fences all over the MPG Ranch.

“We’re hoping to inspire the next generation of conservationists,” Lisbon said. “Right here, you can see the two different ways of managing a landscape. From an educational standpoint, it’s fantastic.”