MISSOULA — Ranchers can use electric fences to keep grizzly bears and other carnivores out of calving areas and barnyards. Sounds like a win-win situation, except electric fencing can be pricey and going through electrified gates can be tedious and a little dicey.
Leave it to the Blackfoot Challenge to find a way around the problem by creating a better way to go through: by installing electrified drive-over mats. That’s what Blackfoot Challenge staff highlighted during a Western Landowners Alliance conference this week.
“After 20-some years, there began to be a lot of five-wire electric fences on the landscape,” said Blackfoot Challenge wildlife coordinator Eric Graham. “But gates were a problem. You could drive up and down the highway, look at certain places and see the gates wide open. It was just that frustration with having to open and close the gates.”
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear biologist Tim Manley developed electrified mats several years ago to use with chicken coops and sheds in the Flathead region, but their use hadn’t caught on in the Blackfoot Valley. So the Blackfoot Challenge decided to make it happen.
About three years ago, Graham had a Seeley Lake company construct the first electric mat to be tested. Then, Brady Stone, son of Blackfoot Challenge chairman Jim Stone, volunteered to build a different style of mat.
To see if the mats would work, they built electric-fence pens in areas of known bear activity, put mats beneath the entrances, and baited the pens with road-killed deer. They worked with FWP bear biologist Jamie Jonkel to be sure no endangered species laws were broken.
“To this day, none of the grizzly bears were able to access the deer,” Graham said. “So the real test became putting the mats at ranch sites. Just like any of these other things, how do we pay for this and make it sustainable into the future?”
The mats they tested aren’t cheap, but Graham said cheaper mats don’t last. Most people are using 20-foot mats, which currently run $3,450 each. Smaller 12-foot mats are $2,175. But Graham warned that material costs are on the rise.
Over the years, the Blackfoot Challenge has developed a number of programs to help landowners coexist with predators, including carcass pickup to reduce attractants and range riders. The programs have helped 500 participant landowners reduce conflict with wolves and grizzly bears by 90%.
But both programs have to get money every year. Blackfoot valley landowners had the Blackfoot Challenge, which could help raise some but not all the money. The organization also gathers critical data on wildlife movements and other environmental concerns in the region that it can use to bolster requests for programs or funding.
The federal government, namely the Natural Resources Conservation Service, offers agriculture grants, but they were developed for one-time requests, such as a new irrigation system.
Plus the grants have to deal with on of the agency’s resource concerns. NRCS employees, like State Conservationist Tom Watson and Assistant State Conservationist Jerry Shows, didn’t know how they could help the Blackfoot Challenge, because mats don’t address a defined resource concern. But after former Blackfoot Challenge executive director Gary Burnett and others kept coming to his office for eight years to show him wildlife data and test results, Shows wanted to try.
“It’s not that the answer is ‘no’ – the question we should be asking is ‘how do I get to yes?’ I don’t want to tell the Jim Stones and the Denny Iversons no,” Shows said.
In 2018, the Farm Bill created NRCS Conservation Innovation Grants to encourage innovative practices on working lands. Shows said the drive-over mats were definitely innovative, and it didn’t hurt that they help protect a federal threatened species.
But an electric mat was a new idea, and Shows struggled to mash it into the agency’s criteria. Most fences keep stock in, not wall predators out. He had to develop a payment rate. Most challenging of all, he had to work with two other states to get their buy-in on the payment schedule.
So, a few years ago, he started trying to convince his counterparts in Wyoming and Idaho.
“We met with quite a bit of resistance,” Show said. “It didn’t seem like it was going anywhere.”
Show tried to come up with a new scenario for electric fencing and mats because his counterparts saw the need but didn’t think it fit anywhere. They worried that they were “opening Pandora’s Box,” that it would be used and abused all over the state or in other states. But finally, they zeroed in on the category of “wildlife structures.”
“It took a lot of work, burned a lot of bridges and made a few folks mad,” Show said. “But sometimes, you have to do some things that cause some of that. We’re trying to work on conflict on the animals’ part, but human folks have conflict, too.”
The Blackfoot Challenge had to do its part by providing scientific data and helping to write a Targeted Implementation Plan for grizzly conflict mitigation, which limits the funding to landowners in Powell and Missoula counties.
The plan covers the installation of 649 electric fences and drive-over mats along with some fence removal. That’s why it won’t open Pandora’s Box, Show said, but some other group could apply to use it in the future.
“It was a focused approach that really came from where we like to do conservation: from the ground up. It came from the local people, the Jim Stones and the Denny Iversons,” Show said. “The ancillary benefit is I feel safer as a rancher going out to these calving areas, sending my kids out to check on calves.”
The focused approach worked.
The Blackfoot Challenge has received a Conservation Innovation Grant to install electric mats starting in FY2022. That’s when the Targeted Implementation Plan kicks in for the next five years, and during that time, the Environmental Quality Incentive Program will help pay for the installation of electric fences.
The NRCS grants don’t pay for everything. Deer Lodge Conservationist Josh Schrecengost said landowners and organizations have to have some skin in the game. So the NRCS will cover $3,445 for a 20-foot mat and $1.84 a foot for electric fence installation.
“That’s not going to cover all the expenses a producer has when they’re installing this but it provides a pretty good chunk toward it, ” Schrecengost said. “ The standard lifespan is 25 years on a fence. So the expectation is that after NRCS pays for it, they’re going to maintain for it for the life of that practice.”
With the grant, the Blackfoot Challenge is leading the way in conflict reduction once again. Burnett, now the Heart of the Rockies Initiative executive director, said he’s gotten calls that indicate there’s a lot of interest from local groups in other states.
Stone said it wouldn’t be so if not for some Blackfoot valley visionaries in the ‘70s.
“I think we all agree that we’re just here, just maintaining this landscape when we don’t own anything really,” Stone said. “But I do think, in the end, that we get a lot of stuff done, and that’s done through this neighboring-up piece. I don’t know – I’m just very lucky to be here in a place and my son taking over the ranch, Danny’s doing the same thing with his family – that just makes you proud. There’s just no other word around that.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.