A landscape fragmented by fences meets conservation efforts.


The short, adventurous reality of the true American Wild West died a quick, ignominious death when barbed wire fencing was patented in 1874. Cattleman quickly unspooled countless miles of the cheap fencing across the landscape to contain herds, putting cowboys out of a job. Homestead Act recipients fenced others out, and barbed wire earned the nickname “the devil’s rope” as it ended tens of thousands of years of such romanticized open spaces.

Fences are now as ubiquitous and unremarkable as sagebrush on the landscape, but for wildlife, fencing has never been unremarkable. There are now millions of miles of barbed and woven wire fencing, and it has long had a deadly impact on cherished wildlife populations that need space to move across the landscape for survival. The more research is conducted, the more the sobering reality for wildlife is clear.

“It’s incredibly hard to inventory fence miles, but it is a huge problem,” said Kyle Kissock of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation in Wyoming, which has worked to remove or modify fences in western Wyoming since 1996.

At first glance, it seems like a low-impact issue: What’s the big deal over some thin metal wires? They just jump over, right? It is in fact a brutal, deadly hazard: elk, mule deer, pronghorn and other wildlife often become caught in wires, trapped by the leg as they jump over fences to get to food, water or find seasonal habitats. Mature males can become entrapped by their own antlers in wires, and new calves and young fawns die when they’re separated from their mothers by woven wire fences that don’t allow them to go under, over or through.

In western states, enough open space still exists for animals to complete traditional, long-range migrations. Recently, one collared doe in Wyoming (Deer 255) alerted researchers to a 242-mile route from southern Wyoming to near the Idaho-Montana border. But the Wyoming Migration Initiative showed in 2013 that mule deer, on their 150-mile seasonal migration between Wyoming’s Red Desert and the Hoback Basin, had to navigate about 170 fence lines.

Mature males can become entrapped by their own antlers in wires, and new calves and young fawns die when they’re separate from their mothers by woven wire fences that don’t allow them to go under, over or through.

A landmark 2006 Utah State University study of 600 fence miles in Colorado and Utah showed that for every 2.5 miles of fencing, at least one ungulate (hooved animal) died. It showed woven wire fences topped with two strands of barbed wire are among the most lethal barriers. Other times, fences near water or sage grouse mating grounds called leks are fatal if birds in flight collide while swooping in for hunting or landings.

The problem is one long known to ranchers, game managers and wildlife biologists, but increasing public interest in conserving remaining wildlife habitat and migration corridors has begun to push fencing issues into the spotlight. It’s good news for wildlife, but fence removals and modification are slow, expensive and can be complex, said Kissock, noting it can take a half-day for volunteers to remove a mile of four- strand barbed-wire fence. “The statistics are staggering,” he said, “and there are very few people on the ground to fix it.”

Yet each mile in migration corridors can make a difference. With the help of organizations like JHWF, fence modifications or removals can be done at a significantly reduced cost to landowners like ranchers, and additional help comes from volunteer labor as well as grants and federal, state and local agencies.

JHWF mainly focuses on fences in the Teton region, partnering with landowners, national parks and the U.S. Forest Service, but the more local groups and fence days other regional groups undertake, the better for wildlife. Along with the JHWF, conservation organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, western state game agencies and even transportation departments and the Bureau of Land Management have worked for years to mitigate the worst fences, and to educate ranchers and landowners on wildlife-friendly fencing tactics. But as the reality of fencing impacts becomes more publicized, other groups dedicated solely to the task are popping up, including the newly formed Absaroka Fence Initiative based in Cody, Wyoming.

Retroactively, nonprofits help by organizing volunteers, making necessary outreach to landowners or land managers for removal or modification. Important changes are smooth (not barbed) top and bottom wires. The bottom wire should be 18 inches off the ground so young animals can follow their mothers, and the top wire 12 inches from the wire below it so legs don’t get tangled.

A comprehensive handbook for any size parcel landowner on wildlife-friendly fencing considerations, called A Landowner’s Handbook to Fences and Wildlife by Christine Paige, is available free of charge on the Western Landowners Alliance website.

“Anytime a fence needs to be replaced is an opportunity to make it wildlife friendly,” said Renee Seidler, wildlife biologist and executive director of JHWF. “There are a lot of resources for funding and these projects really make people feel good because you’re taking tangible action to help wildlife.

Brigid Mander is a skier and writer based in Jackson, Wyoming. She writes about mountain sports, culture and conservation issues for publications ranging from Backcountry Magazine to the Wall Street Journal.