An elk mother and her young calf slowly munch their way out of the forest on Tenderfoot Mountain. The baby follows her mama toward Dillon Reservoir and across the sagebrush meadow, and the pair leap over a short, dilapidated fence.
Suddenly, the mother falls to the ground. Her back leg is snagged on rusty barbed wire and she can’t wriggle free from the old fence’s tangles.
“Poor things. They lay there for days and starve to death and get picked at by other predators,” said Ashley Nettles, wildlife biologist with the Dillon Ranger District. “It’s an awful death.”
The south-facing slopes of Tenderfoot Mountain between Dillon and Keystone are important winter range for a herd of about 500 elk, and the area is home to mule deer year-round, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Every year, the agency receives a half dozen calls about large animals caught in fences there, especially in the winter when snow piles up and elk and deer can’t see the fences. People often notice the animals too late, and wildlife managers can’t save them.
Nettles has been tracking and mapping the problem around Summit County for a while, and she recently spearheaded a collaborative effort to remove old fencing near the Dillon Cemetery.
She partnered with the landowners there — the Summit County Open Space and Trails Department, the town of Dillon and Denver Water — as well as Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and she organized a volunteer day July 24.
More than 50 people came together to pull out old fencing with long sleeves, leather gloves, eye protection, pliers and bolt cutters.
Some people snipped the barbed wire, while others rolled it up into piles and yanked out fence posts; still others drove around in ATVs collecting the wire to be recycled in Denver.
“It’s instant habitat improvement,” Nettles said, as it makes it easier for animals to move and migrate, and it also looks better for people exploring the area.
The group removed about 2 miles of fencing this year, in addition to the almost 1 mile removed last summer in the same spot.
Nettles said removing 1 mile of fence improves about 620 acres of winter range for large game, which means the elk and deer around Tenderfoot should enjoy nearly 2,000 acres of improved habitat thanks to two days of coordinated volunteer work.
The Dillon Cemetery still wanted to keep some kind of fencing, so the Forest Service donated material to make wildlife-friendly buck-and-rail fences.
Katie Kent, resource specialist with the county’s Open Space and Trails Department, estimated that volunteers working a month ago built about 1,000 feet of buck-and-rail and removed about 5,600 feet of barbed wire.
District wildlife manager Elissa Knox, with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, praised the work of multiple agencies and landowners to come together to confront that hot spot.
“It was a really good team effort,” she said.
Nettles said she wants to organize another volunteer day next summer to remove the rest of the old fencing in that small area and then move on to tackle the issue in the rest of the county.
“There’s loads of old barbed wire out there,” she said. “Just look. There’s barbed wire fencing everywhere.”
Most of those fences were installed almost 100 years ago by people trying to keep out trespassers or enclose livestock, she said, and they serve no purpose now.
In places where government departments or private property owners still want to physically mark boundaries, people can use signs and posts like the Forest Service does, Nettles said, or other types of wildlife-friendly fencing.
For more information about wildlife-friendly fencing, visit cpw.state.co.us and search “Fencing with Wildlife in Mind.”