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  • Writer's pictureLara Birkes

Don't Fence Me In

A New Approach For The West?

Roy Rogers made the lyrics famous, but a poet and engineer from the Highway Department in Helena, MT wrote the original.

“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 . . .”

Opining about the vastness of the open range is synonymous with the West, and ironically so are fences.

A quintessential part of the landscape, fences punctuate the periphery of the plains, rolling hills and mountainsides as far as the eye can see. An interesting contrast between freedom, and the clear demarcation of what’s owned (by the few).

The origins are fascinating and say a lot about our modern world. Indeed, fences have been around in various forms for millennia. The Wall of Jericho dates back to 8000 BC. Of course there is the Great Wall of China. Historical evidence indicates Ancient Greeks and Romans fenced areas they conquered to claim as their own. The Anglo-Saxons grew hedges. And in the 1800’s barbed wire was invented as the West was colonized so ranchers could keep new settlers from encroaching on pastureland. More broadly this symbolized a transition from nomadic cultures, hunting and gathering, to a civilization based on land ownership. Fences defined areas and they became a symbol for protecting the enclosed to benefit those living there, originating from the word defense.

A present day juxtaposition is the approach many countries take in Europe. I was based there for nearly ten years and now appreciate the contrast our continents have to land possession. There, people walk freely across so called ‘private’ land, with an implicit assumption that livestock gates will be properly closed and the same care will be taken on another’s land as one’s own. From England’s Lake District to the Alps, this is the culture. Quite different from the closed approach we have to open space in the West.

Fast forward to 2019 and, like a lot of things, it’s worth re-examining the origins of purpose, the present day applicability of fences and, importantly, broader implications.

Wildlife migration is a key one. Not surprisingly, animals don’t recognize boundaries humans designate on maps. Over time, with ranches going from thousands of acres, to hundreds, and increasingly to ‘ranchettes’ or 20 - 40 acre size lots (which I confess to have), land is divided more and more.

The consequences for migrating animals like antelope, deer, sheep, elk, birds of prey and sage grouse, are dire. Heartbreaking examples abound of wildlife injured or killed by wire fencing. Migrating species, such as a herd of mule deer in Wyoming studied by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, had to navigate 170 fences on their journeys between summer and winter ranges.

Many non-profits in the West are working together to remove old fencing and encourage the adoption of proven techniques that are either low enough for wildlife to jump over, or high enough to crawl under. I am in the process of taking mine down! It was constructed years ago and no longer necessary. The deer have a well-worn migration path through the field and under choice areas of the fence, but I see no reason for them to navigate it anymore.

This is particularly important in migratory corridors that are increasingly touched by human development. Paradise Valley is a great example. Residing in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), it’s one of the last remaining large, nearly intact ecosystems in the northern temperate zone of our planet.

But more then fence removal, here’s a solution I like much more, and where I suspect modern ranching and conservation will meet: geo-fencing.

As applied to livestock management, geo-fencing is essentially a virtual fence. The technology uses global positioning (GPS) or radio frequency identification (RFID) to define a geographic boundary. Not only does this enable ranchers to track and monitor the location and wellbeing of livestock, it also allows ranchers to virtually move fencing boundaries so grazing is managed in a way that supports regenerative land management practices, thus preventing desertification and other detrimental impacts of overuse.

I learned this first from a local Paradise Valley rancher and entrepreneur, Malou Anderson-Ramirez. Malou is a third-generation rancher in Tom Miner Basin, the grizzly bear corridor skirting the northern boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. For generations, her family has been dealing with the realities of ranching in predator country, adopting increasingly progressive methods to coexist. Her practices to foster shared landscapes with grizzlies are already impressive, but Malou also has a business solution with scalable potential. Enter TEAL Tags.

A movement in modern ranching and conservation, TEAL Tags (short for: Technology, Education, Agricuture + Landscape) offers an innovative solution for ranchers to share landscapes with endangered species.

The tags are small microchips placed in the livestock’s ear to survey wellness through body temperature, heart rate and respiration. They pair with a smartphone that’s programmed to send immediate alerts with abnormal changes in livestock vital signs using Internet of Things (IoT) edge analytics. With this information ranchers can steer-off a predator encounter or find the carcass in time to qualify for funds that compensate ranchers for livestock losses due to attacks. This mitigates the financial reasons ranchers kill endangered species. And of course this stands to scale to geo-fencing. See Malou’s NatGeo Chasing Genius finalist video here!

Carrying this example forward, one can imagine broader potential extended to shared landscapes with ungulate species like bison - once native to Tom Miner Basin and much better equipped to cohabitate with predators than human introduce cattle. This quickly becomes a much broader discussion, which I appreciate is not always popular in ranching communities, but much has been lost alongside the freedom of buffalo to roam. Given that fencing these animals is daunting and often cost prohibitive, geo-fencing stands to shift this paradigm.

A lot has changed since the 1800’s, and our approach to fencing should too. I don’t believe technology always has the right solution. Far from it. But given the opportunity to bridge 21st century ranching and conservation considerations, it’s worth considering under the right circumstances. Aesthetic fences seem an obvious place to begin.

We face an increasingly crowded world, and one that’s forcing wildlife and humans to share landscapes in ways we’ve never had to before. Our practices must evolve with this reality in mind, managing for what we want to keep-in rather then what we want to keep-out. Where possible, let’s ask ourselves if we can break with these demarcations to re-wild the land and it’s original inhabitants.


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