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Volunteer Push Brings Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge's Fence-Removal Goal Within Reach

By Jeffrey Richardson

On a weekend in mid-July, a group of volunteers troop to northwestern Nevada to work in the landscape they love, despite temperatures approaching 100 degrees. They are closing in on a years-long dream of dismantling the last of 175 miles of barbed-wire fence (erected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to control cattle grazing) that once stretched across Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. Shade is scarce, but smiles are abundant.

While protection of pronghorn antelope is the preeminent goal of the refuge, concern is rising over the survival of another Great Basin icon, the sage grouse. With cattle grazing no longer permitted within the refuge and the pending removal of wild horses and burros that compete with antelope for forage, attention has turned to removing the fences from the dry, rugged terrain. The wire entangles and kills running antelope and impairs their seasonal movements. It’s also lethal to sage grouse as they fly into and out of the sites where they perform extravagant courtship rituals.

A Little Help From our Friends

Friends of Nevada Wilderness, a statewide organization based in Reno that advocates for resource protection, has assembled the volunteers this weekend. Executive Director Shaaron Netherton leads the group’s increasing emphasis on stewardship of public lands, collaborating with federal and state agencies to carry out resource protection and restoration projects that agencies can’t always afford to do on their own. “We [are] investing sweat equity into caring for the land,” Netherton says.

The Sheldon fences have been dismantled in increments over the years. Refuge Manager Brian Day says a half-mile of fence per year was average for a long time, what he calls a discouraging pace. “The fences are hazardous to wildlife. Every mile that comes down is instant habitat improvement,” he says.  Last year, FNW hired a full-time field crew for the job. With the help of volunteers, the crew was able to remove 75 miles of fencing. This season began with more than 50 miles remaining.

The volunteers are based at Virgin Valley Campground, a few miles west of Denio Junction off State Route 140. The campground, open year-round, is one of several in the refuge. Although it lacks fully developed sites, it has pit toilets, fresh water, and fire rings and boasts a hot spring with a pool and shower house. The site is a favorite among campers, hunters, wildlife watchers, and gemstone enthusiasts drawn by area opal mines.

When Netherton arrives at the campground, she greets the Smyth family: Mike, Rita, and their 16-year-old son Levi—volunteers who have been here a couple of days—before heading out to examine the area where volunteers will pull fence the following day. Meanwhile, Rita gets busy with her Dutch ovens, preparing dinner for her family and the field crew. “I’ve always volunteered, but I like this a lot better,” Rita says. “It’s just gratifying. We teach our kids to understand this is our earth; it’s our problem. Then you can enjoy it once you’ve fixed it.”

Mike, a heavy-equipment operator, had his first experience in stewardship when he became involved in efforts to protect Walden Pond in his native Massachusetts. “I enjoy the camaraderie,” he says. “[I like] meeting people of all kinds of backgrounds and perspectives and doing something to help the environment.”

As darkness falls on Friday, a caravan of volunteers pulls in, headed by Pat Bruce, stewardship program director for FNW. As others arrive, hailing friends from previous trips, Bruce—aided by volunteers Nick Soverel and Kristen Straight—begins to set up the cook awning and shade tent for the next day’s main event.

Off to Work We Go

Saturday morning dawns quiet and still. The FNW staff lays out breakfast: bagels and condiments, oatmeal, granola bars, and fruit. Graham Stafford, a professional photographer, has volunteered to prepare a hot scramble for those who want a little more substance and cracks 18 eggs into a bowl as the onions and potatoes begin to sizzle.

As the sun rises, volunteers close their tents and gather gear for the day. Like their companions, Gary Frye and Merry Mathers love these outings for the chance to see new or favorite country, and they value the gratification of doing important conservation work. Committed as they are, most of them say they would gladly put in more time on projects if the long distances from home and various other obligations would permit it.

Some have additional motivation. Retired Marine Chuck Thomas enjoys knocking around the country on his own, but he got involved with FNW when his children urged him not to travel solo. “I get to see a lot of new country with nice people,” he says.

As Stafford watches over the eggs, Netherton and Bruce build a roster that will organize the volunteers into four groups that will work the fence line under the direction of the full-time field crewmembers (John Coleman, Paul Wood, Evan Lantto, and Allen Gibson). Bruce convenes a briefing to outline the day’s plan and review safety issues: “Drink plenty of water, use your sun block, beware of barbed-wire hazards, and, above all, have fun.”

Coleman, chief of the full-time field crew, leads a line of cars out of the campground and west on S.R. 140. He drops off his group with instructions before leading the rest to their designated spots along one of the remaining fence sections.

Down to Business

From their starting point on the Nevada-Oregon border, Levi Smyth and Mike Thorson begin to work, slowly at first as they become accustomed to the tools and the process. Their task is complicated by having to toil uphill from the road. Smyth says he has taken down wooden fences before, but never barbed wire. It can be a little tricky, but, despite the challenge, Smyth is content.

He works steadily cutting the clips that attach the wires to the steel posts, now and then checking in with his partners to make sure they are staying hydrated. He seems to have caught the volunteer bug. “We want to come back to this place, we want to take care of it,” Smyth says. “I want my kids and grandkids to be able to come here.”

Upon returning to his own group, Coleman begins to coil the wire now lying on the ground. Rolls of wire and posts are piled every few hundred feet for retrieval. He also disassembles occasional rock piles built to stabilize the fence. Thorson has the task of levering out the sometimes-stubborn posts with a jack.

Positioned next to the post, the jack is slipped onto the post, allowing it to grab the knobs. Taking hold of the lever end, Thorson bears down and pushes and pulls to work the post free. It is hot, tedious work, but Thorson takes it in stride, slowly working his way first uphill, then across a wide sweep of sage after the others.

To avoid the risks of intensifying heat, the groups return to camp in the afternoon. They have pulled nearly four miles of fence, a solid day’s work, according to Day. Bruce voices the long view of projects like this: “For us to be involved in something this large, to have it as one of our legacies on the Sheldon, makes you proud. It’s a huge thing for the wildlife.”

Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge 

The Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge protects more than half a million acres of high-desert habitat for large herds of pronghorn antelope, scattered bands of bighorn sheep, and a rich assortment of other wildlife. The landscape is vast, rugged, and punctuated with waterfalls, narrow gorges, and lush springs among rolling hills and expansive tablelands of sagebrush and mountain mahogany. fws.gov/refuges, 775-941-0199

For More Information
Friends of Nevada Wilderness
P.O. Box 9754, Reno, NV 89507
nevadawilderness.org
775-324-7667

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