Good fences don't mangle wildlife

  • Wendy Beye


This winter a small tragedy took place on a ridge above the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana near where I live.  I was nearly home when two neighbors out for a walk frantically flagged my truck down.

They'd found a deer silently struggling, hanging upside down by one back leg, gripped in a loop of the woven wire fence surrounding a yard at a house where nobody seemed to be home. Did I have a pair of pliers to cut the fence and free the animal?

I pulled into the yard and dug through my toolbox. The pliers I found couldn't cut the wire. I dug deeper and grabbed a pair of wire cutters. With shaking hands, we worked together to chisel through the top wire and free the frightened young doe.

She fell with a thump, unable to get up. The puzzled look in her eyes when she discovered that her legs couldn't respond was heartbreaking. She must have been hanging all night; her front hooves had dug a trench in the lawn.  I hoped that her ordeal had only temporarily paralyzed nerves in her legs, but I suspected that her injuries were more serious.

I told the good Samaritans that I'd call the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks division as soon as I got home, but when I finally reached a game biologist, he was 40 minutes away. I ran back to check on the doe, and found that she had crawled about 20 feet, dragging her back legs.

I cried as I slowly walked back to my house.  An hour later, my phone rang.  It was the biologist calling to say he had put the doe down. Her back was broken. It was the second call he'd gotten that day about a trapped deer.

"Woven wire fences are the very worst for killing wildlife," he said. "I wish we could ban them."

When I bought my house 15 years ago, there were only three other homes in the area.  One owner had some cattle, so his land was fenced, but no one else felt the need to erect a barrier around their little piece of Montana heaven.  Elk, deer and moose wandered freely up and down the ridge, foraging on native grasses and shrubs.  Some mornings we saw as many as 75 elk cows and calves filing through the trees below our house.

Then the first lot sold in the subdivision next door, and soon, new houses sprouted up. Still, elk and deer continued to roam through the neighborhood, though the moose apparently found new routes to the river.

Two years ago, the neighbors in whose fence the doe was entangled put up woven wire to contain their two hunting dogs.  A worthy endeavor, because loose dogs chase wildlife, but an unfortunate choice of fence style. And now, it seems, the wrong kind of fence building has become a trend.

This year, three more woven-wire fences went up, and we no longer see the elk ghosting through the trees at dawn. I haven't asked, but I bet some of those folks who put up fences have no idea why the local wildlife seems to be disappearing.

The University of Utah conducted a survey along more than 600 miles of ranch fences in northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado to determine what kind of fencing causes the highest wildlife mortality rates. The worst culprit was woven wire (a 6-inch heavy-gauge mesh) with a barbed wire strand a few inches above it and a total fence height of more than 42 inches. Animals that tried to jump over a fence like that frequently caught a hoof in a fatal twist of unbreakable wire and died of their injuries or of starvation.  Very young animals were unable to jump high enough to get over the fence and could not crawl under the woven wire.  The herds of deer, antelope, mountain sheep or elk left them behind to die.

Most of the mortalities were young animals, with more than two-thirds caught in the top two wires of fence. In addition to losses due to entanglement, for every mile of fence, at least one ungulate died next to a fence, and almost all were fawns curled up in the grass, waiting for mothers who failed to return.

Though the fences studied were on ranches, the same risks apply anywhere people want to insulate their property from wildlife or contain the domestic animals they own.

If we insist on building our homes where wildlife loves to roam, the least we can do is refrain from constructing deadly traps that kill them. And what is the best fence to build? None at all. But if you have to build one, flag it so wildlife can easily see it. Build it so wildlife can go under it or jump over it, with a height under 40 inches and top wires separated by at least 12 inches. (information on building wildlife-friendly fences is available at  Small changes can go a long way toward easing suffering.

Wendy Beye is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She is a pilot who has worked with a game biologist counting antelope, wolves and other animals in western Montana. She lives in Hamilton, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

The wildlife link doesn't work.
denounced inherent
denounced inherent
Mar 23, 2010 02:46 PM
Are you talkin' about cyclone fencing?

Did you know in Oregon the state will pay for your crop losses if you put up a twelve-foot fence with strands of barbed wire on top?
Deer still jump them when they're hungry enough.
Link fixed
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson
Mar 23, 2010 03:34 PM
Thanks for pointing it out and sorry for the inconvenience.
Mar 23, 2010 07:13 PM
Please spread the word about how fencing choices can lead to suffering. There is no excuse for this horror. None whatsoever. We can all make different choices.
The real problem isn't fencing.
Mar 23, 2010 08:52 PM
It's the subdivisions and increasing urban-wildland interface. Fencing is just a minor symptom of the bigger problem facing wildlife throughout much of the west but especially places like the Bitterroot valley. Unfortunately, there's no easy solution to the problem because so many people want to live in places like these and others are willing to sell to them. And zoning goes so strongly against the western grain of freedom from regulation and restriction.

Fencing is part and parcel of the problem
Elizabeth Anglin
Elizabeth Anglin
Mar 30, 2010 09:59 AM
This year I spent the first year of my life on a high mesa in Colorado with sheep farmers and speculative developers. Our small off-the-grid horse ranch is 40 acres without a single woven wire fence, lots of elk and deer, and dogs who know better than to stray and chase wildlife. (Porcupines are great natural dog trainers.)

What galls me is that we have two things on this mesa going for us that the local sheep farmers and land speculators don't seem to want to pay attention to:

1) One of the best Rocky Mountain Basque Shepherd families lives here and is willing to actively shepherd sheep across unfenced land and

2) The large ranch land parcels under real estate speculation are not yet sold and no one is running cattle on them.

But for whatever reason, both these sets of people feel the need to put up miles of woven wire fencing. The real estate speculators gall me the most because the fencing protects nothing and kills multiple elk and deer throughout the summer. The sheep farmer because he's just too darn lazy to or greedy to let the Basque shepherds herd his sheep on his own land without the fencing. His fences also kill multiple elk and deer through the summer.

The real estate speculators say they are using the fences to prote ct the elk and deer from errant hunters in the fall.

Well, if your fences kill two to three baby elk and deer per week in June and July, what kind of protection are your fences truly offering the elk and deer? From Hunters? Come on. Stop the B.S. Guys.

It's not people moving in from the city that are the problem up here. It's locals. The sheep farmer is from a an old local family, and the managers of the ranch properties that are unsold are from similar.

They feel entitled to do whatever they wish with this land because their great grandparents showed up here as miners and drovers and cattle ranches and sheep farmers in the late 1800's. They are still operating under the principals of "Manifest Destiny" or "Manifest Density" - as I like to call it.

Wish I could (legally) wrap wire fence around one of their ankles and let them hang from it a day or two. Not to be mean to them, just to help provide them with some education in empathy, compassion and good critter sense... since they seem to be lacking all of the above.

woven wire fences
Debra Marin
Debra Marin
Mar 24, 2010 10:37 PM
This fencing material sounds like what we call "sheep wire" fencing. Is it the same thing? We live on a city lot, on the urban-wildland interface and enjoy seeing the deer roam through our neighborhood. A few years ago we put up a wire fence to keep out all the neighborhood dogs that roamed freely, and to contain our dogs at home. Recently I noticed that several new neighbors have installed a similar type fence around their yards. Now I'm concerned that the increase will become a hazard for the local deer population. Thanks for your article, which I will pass along to our neighborhood folks.
Fences and wildlife
Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye
Mar 25, 2010 11:39 AM
Yes,woven wire fencing is also called "sheep fencing" or "hogwire". It consists of heavy-gauge wire woven into approximately 6" squares, and comes in different heights. Here in the Bitterroot it seems to be the fencing of choice around suburban lots of an acre or so in size. One of the other comments listed was right on -- it's not just the fences, but increasing numbers of homes being built on what used to be good winter range for ungulates that are having very negative effects on wildlife populations. Zoning efforts have been unsuccessful.