From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 9, Number 6 - April 30, 2009
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

‘Antelope Alley’ – Historic crossing holds obstacles

by Joy Ufford

“Antelope Alley” on the west edge of Pinedale is a traditional crossing for migrating pronghorn – but twice a year the animals encounter a growing maze of development, disturbance, unfriendly fences and traffic along their historic route.

What is deemed progress for the growing town becomes an obstacle course for antelope, so tied to their routes they will struggle through chest-deep snow rather than follow a “manmade” path.

Recent development on Highway 191 west of town leaves pronghorns confused and lost when they try to reach and cross to move to summer and winter feeding grounds.

Antelope are being forced to change centuries-old patterns – they travel in smaller groups, cross the highway more at night or seek access farther west than they have ever ventured.

This time of year wintering pronghorns (about 5,000) leave their more southern Sublette grounds and travel to numerous points many miles away – as they have done for centuries. For about two weeks each spring (and autumn), many take their chances at Antelope Alley.

Crossing guards

More people are aware of the animals’ dilemma and are trying to find ways around obstacles thrown up in the pronghorns’ path.

Wyoming Game and Fish (G&F) personnel have acted as “crossing guards” for the last several years, stopping traffic so larger groups can dash across the highway and continue on their way.

Des Brunette at the G&F Pinedale office last week watched a small group of 40 pronghorn and tired to figure where they would cross the highway from west to east. Later, the group of nervous animals doubled in size.

“The last five years, with all that growth, from Country Lane to the bus barn – it’s started squeezing them,” she said.

A resident on the west side of the New Fork had called in about the lost pronghorn.

“They weren’t wanting to cross there,” Brunette said. “They wouldn’t cross there because they never have. That’s the farthest west we’ve ever seen them.”

About half crossed the highway anyway and “the rest got lost,” she recalled.

A new sign being installed at the Hampton Inn spooked them so they ran behind the Baymount where a fence curbed their travel. After about 15 minutes of watching, Brunette and Game Warden Supervisor Scott Werbelow stopped traffic between the Pinedale schools’ bus barn road and the Hampton Inn entrance – a tiny opening for an animal that can see as far as three miles.

“The actual traffic stop wasn’t more than five minutes,” Brunette said. Often one antelope dashes out but cars don’t check if there are more following.

“There might be 100 behind that one, waiting, so it could take half a day for them to get across. It’s heartbreaking to watch them. They’re just confused.”

Old trails

Development opportunity on that stretch of highway “from the agency’s perspective” isn’t a good deal for animals, noted G&F wildlife biologist Dean Clause, instrumental in placing the flashing message signs at key wildlife crossings.

“The outlook for those antelope continuing to use Antelope Alley is pretty grim,” Clause said. “I’m kind of surprised they’re still squirting through there.”

However they get across, about the same number that use Antelope Alley arrive in their usual summer grounds as have in the past, said Game Warden Bubba Haley.

He estimated about 800 antelope cross there and this spring, G&F helped about 300 through. They head up to the Willow Creek drainage and the Upper New Fork area.

“They’re making it through Antelope Alley,” he said. “They’re just having a harder time.”

Many antelope – along with mule deer and elk – migrate through Sublette County and cross the highway at Trappers Point farther west of Pinedale.

An archeological dig there revealed adult and fawn antelope carcasses, indicating springtime crossings, and were dated back almost 6,000 years. The Antelope Alley crossing hasn’t been “dated” because no sites have been excavated.

Most pronghorn crossing at Trappers Point head for further destinations.

Path of the Pronghorn

The most notable destination is Grand Teton National Park and that migration route is tended to between the Upper Green and the park by U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service commitments to the “Path of the Pronghorn.”

It is considered the longest mammal migration route in the Lower 48 states and the third longest non-avian route in the world. Considerable attention is being paid to ensure the historic route provides migration access as close to original game trails as possible.

Clause and others work with the Green River Valley Land Trust’s (GRVLT) voluntary wildlife-friendly fencing initiative with private landowners and public land managers to facilitate migration between Trappers Point and the Upper Green.

“Antelope tend to not be very good jumpers so for the most part they depend on slipping through fences,” he said.

Periodically a committee meets to discuss fences along the route and what changes might help migrating wildlife. The GRVLT’s formal project area doesn’t include Antelope Alley, according to land program director Jordan Vana, but landowners near there have discussed conservation options with him

“ With the exception of a handful of folks the response has been overwhelming and we feel very fortunate about it,” Vana said of the fence initiative. “It is the landowners who drive this whole thing. If those ranches are developed that become fragmented habitat and it’s harder to migrate through. If we lose the open character and space of the ag lands – most critters use or move through those lands.”

GRVLT also works closely with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and has replaced fences bordering BLM lands or used by permittees.

Back to the alley

Nancy and Roger McDaniel, who have lived in Pinedale for more than 30 years, recall watching herds of antelope cross west of town.

“When our kids were very young we would drive out and watch the very large herds of antelope that would stop traffic going across there,” she said. “It was really a special thing.”

McDaniel said she believes most “locals” don’t want to lose the traditional crossing and out-of-towners who develop might not understand how much the wildlife means to people here.

Ironically, the BLM (also working to protect larger migration corridors) is housed in the relatively new Stromness Building (leased, not owned, by local and federal agencies) – a major obstacle on the traditional Antelope Alley crossing.

To that, Manager Chuck Otto pointed out, “The BLM didn’t tear it up – a private contractor did.”

It is now surrounded by even newer hotels, commercial spaces and an upcoming subdivision.

Otto credits the BLM for making all of its land north of the Anticline unavailable for oil and gas leasing in the new Pinedale Resource Management Plan and committing $1 million for wildlife-friendly fencing. Most BLM-owned surface is included in two “Areas of Critical Environmental Concern” at Trappers Point and the New Fork Potholes as well as a special recreation management area from the Warren Bridge campground north on the Green for 12 miles.

“So I think we have taken more real action to protect the migration corridor than any other agency bar none,” he said. “And we’re real damn proud of it too!”

Otto does spot pronghorn around the office building on Antelope Alley.

“We do still see pronghorn moving through although most have been either east of us between the Wyoming Transportation Department and the ‘Halliburton Hotel’ or further west past the Hampton Inn construction site.

“The site between us and the hotel is planned as open space in the Bloomfield subdivisions … but it’s pretty narrow and with all the activity on either side I don’t know if it would be an attractive or viable place for antelope in the future.”

Bloomfield developer Matt Harber said he is “very aware of the historic pronghorn migration route” and has considered it at all stages of planning.

The recently annexed subdivision, not yet built, includes open space to “minimize impacts of the development on all wildlife, as well as the pronghorn.”

More than 25 acres along Barber Creek is being preserved as open space extending from Highway 191 to the north property line.

“It does not solve the issue of crossing the highway, and it may not work well for the pronghorns since they are so skittish but it is a designated strip … that will be conserved,” Harber said.

Original fencing must be replaced with wildlife-friendly fencing “if fencing is allowed at all” in the subdivision, he added.

“We are working with the various agencies as well as the GRVLT to find additional ways to provide necessary conservations and easements within our development and beyond as well as seeking ways to contribute to the efforts to preserve other migration routes.”

Zone W for wildlife?

On the county level, wildlife concerns are taken very seriously, said Bart Myers, planning and zoning administrator.

“I send every (county) development proposal to Game and Fish for review and comment,” Myers said.

The agency recommends wildlife-friendly fence – almost always implemented as a condition of approval, he said. Also, the County Comprehensive Plan aims to protect wildlife and migration corridors.

“Game and Fish expressed concerns over the potential impacts to deer and antelope from a higher density subdivision in (Trappers Point),” Myers said. “That proposal ended up being denied. … I would like to think wildlife concerns were a factor.”

Harber noted blockage of the migration corridor near Bloomfield began “years and even decades ago” when other properties closer to town were annexed and zoned mostly commercial.

“It has become increasingly more difficult for the pronghorns to get to the highway when migrating south due to the amount of buildings in that area and once they cross the highway, they run into even more,” Harber said.

Echoing that point, Otto stated, “Why is the area zoned for commercial development if the community is that concerned? Why not change the zoning before it’s too late? It’s all private land and the BLM really has no say in it.”

Private property around Antelope Alley is almost all commercial, confirmed Kate Grimes, Pinedale Planning and Zoning Administrator.

“It is my understanding there has been a lot of comment on the migration corridor but I have not seen/heard of an actual plan submitted (in the town boundary) other than Harber’s open space,” she said. “I would expect the public may bring that up as those properties seek development approval in the future.”

Town Ordinance does not contain a zoning district specifically protecting open space, Grimes explained.

“It would require an easement, deed restriction, condition of approval (on development applications), master plan or other means in conjunction with the zoning to remain permanently protected from development,” Grimes said.

As a spotlight shines on the larger migration corridor, more attention could fall on the smaller picture – a short stretch of highway nicknamed “Antelope Alley.”

“It’s just very historical,” said Des Brunette. “It’s just one of those things you hate to lose.”

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