Don’t Fence Me In

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in

Years ago, I recalled standing on the Arctic Coast in Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge looking south across the coastal plain towards the Brooks Range. One of my impressions was that I saw what the Great Plains might have looked like in the days before livestock. To me, it was the lack of fences which was one of the most remarkable features of that place.

Yet fences are so ubiquitous that they are virtually invisible to most people—until you are someplace like the Arctic Coast where they don’t exist. Fences run across even some of the most remote parts of the West.

The invention of barbed wire in 1874 provided an inexpensive and effective means of corralling domestic livestock on open ranges. Since that time, barbed wire has been strung across most of the western United States, including on public lands without any oversight or consideration of its negative impacts on wildlife. Not only is it a pain for humans to cross, but its influence on wildlife is also far more significant.

In many respects, given the ubiquity of fencing, it impacts on wildlife is likely higher than roads which are recognized as a significant negative influence on wildlife. The amount of fencing is astounding. One study in Alberta found that the linear extent of fences was twice that of all roads per township, 16 times the extent of paved roads, 7 times the extent of two-track roads, and 4 times the extent of gravel roads!

Yet in my experience, none of the federal agencies that regularly allow livestock production on public lands ever review or even consider the negative impacts of fencing on other wildlife.

Fences have both a direct impact on wildlife as barriers to movement or where animals are tangled in the strands of wire until they die. One study documented that fence mortality of wildlife was higher for juveniles, which may lead to an underestimation of their impact. And how many animals are injured while attempting to negotiate fences, and later die and/or more easily killed as a consequence of their injury?

Indirect impacts are subtler to document. I can recall once watching a vehicle driving across Montana’s Centennial Valley where fences trapped a group of pronghorn on either side of a road and ran for miles in front of the vehicle desperately looking for a way to cross the barrier. No doubt those pronghorns were suffering stress if nothing else due to the presence of fences.

Predators can use fences to help corral and trap prey. Although it is difficult to know how frequent this occurs, no doubt coyotes, wolves, and other predators utilize fences to slow or catch prey.

Even when fences are imposed to benefit wildlife, they can backfire. In one study in Ontario, fences were built to guide migrating turtles to safe passage across a busy highway, but instead often trapped the turtles between barriers on either side of the road and increased mortality. The turtles often could not find their way off the fenced corridor. They found almost 900 individual reptiles on the road taking all study sites into account, and the results were depressing. Between 68-90 percent of the animals were dead,

Fences are often used as a “half measure” to “fix” livestock damage to resources. For instance, a typical response to livestock trampling of riparian areas is to fence the riparian zone. This “solution” sometimes cures the direct impacts of direct cattle destruction of these valuable areas but also creates has implications of their own. Fencing riparian areas can also be an effective barrier to wildlife seeking to utilize the same areas.

Fences have only recently been recognized as a significant source of mortality for endangered sage grouse populations. Sage grouse are weak fliers, and in some areas collisions with fences is responsible for up to 30% of all annual mortality. A further problem for sage grouse is that some avian predators like ravens will utilize fence posts as lookout posts. In the otherwise tree-less terrain that is characteristic of sagebrush steppe, fences for livestock often provide the only elevated perches.

As is often the case with livestock and other economic interests, what you don’t know can’t be used against you. Since the research on fence impacts on wildlife is very limited, it is easy for federal agencies to ignore these effects. Yet it’s difficult to imagine that something as ubiquitous as fencing doesn’t have an inordinate effect on the West’s wildlife. When these impacts occur on public lands, the public has a right to demand that fences be removed until proven safe, not the other way around.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy