Rants from the Hill: Don't fence me in

Marking our territory with wildlife-friendly fences.


Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

When you look at a fence, you are seeing something more than a material object. You're seeing an idea—a form of symbolic communication that not only marks a boundary but also stakes a particular kind of claim about the land and its uses. In feudal England most land remained in the "commons," shared fields where even peasants were allowed to practice subsistence agriculture. By the sixteenth century, however, wealthy landowners began to fence off the commons for their own benefit, dispossessing poor laborers and farmers, and privatizing a natural resource that had long offered sustenance to the entire community. While we'll never know who raised the first fence, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a guy who thought harder about the social contract than I'm willing to, wrote that "The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said 'This is mine,' and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society." In establishing a new kind of relationship both with his neighbors and with the land, that first fence builder caused some problems we haven't yet solved.

Here in the American West we have long had a complicated relationship with fences. The "commons" of the frontier West was the open range that was used by Native American peoples, by wildlife, and, much later, by ranchers whose livelihood depended (and in many places still depends) upon the use of public lands. But legislation like the Homestead Act (1862) and the Desert Land Act (1877) granted legal possession of land to anyone who could "improve" it, and a fence was (and still is) considered an improvement to land. In other words, the fence functioned as the primary marker of possession and assertion of ownership. The Range Wars of the nineteenth-century West were feuds over the right to fence off parts of this open range commons—particularly the parts that contained the region's limited water sources. If skirmishes in those wars sometimes ended with six-guns, they usually began with barbed wire—a technology invented not long after the Civil War, and one that profoundly transformed the landscape of the American West.

Beneath the politics and economics of the Range Wars is a different kind of conflict, one that is more a battle of ideas than one of land use. It is a war we're still fighting in the West today. Two of the strongest human impulses are the desire for home and the yearning for freedom—two noble ideas that are sometimes at odds with each other. In erecting a fence between ourselves and the so-called "outside" world—a world that was rendered "outside" by the fence itself—we are defining our home ground. In the parlance of the cultural geographer, the fence converts "space" into "place" by declaring the occupant's intention to separate a piece of land from the commons and stay put on it. Seen in this valorizing light, a fence encloses and protects a place that we care for, improve, nurture, and treasure. A fence communicates, both to ourselves and to our neighbors, an ennobling concept of home.

Film still from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the second in John Ford's Cavalry trilogy.

At the same time, however, we have always wanted the West to symbolize freedom, independence, and openness; we fantasize that it is a landscape perpetually free from constraints, whether geographical or social. In the back of our minds, where we keep the indelible images from old John Ford films, the West will always be a place with infinite room to roam. To move "out" West from "back" East has always implied a movement from bondage into freedom, and nothing is as powerful a symbol of that liberation as the sublime fencelessness of the iconic western landscape. This desire for liberty from constraint, which is expressed in so many western novels, films, and songs, is at the heart of the much-covered 1934 Cole Porter classic "Don't Fence Me In," which includes these lyrics:

Don't fence me in

Just turn me loose, let me straddle my old saddle

Underneath the western skies

On my cayuse, let me wander over yonder

Till I see the mountains rise

I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences

And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses

And I can't look at hobbles and I can't stand fences

Don't fence me in

Like Porter's crooning cowboy, we Westerners "can't stand fences." How, then, are we to reconcile our celebration of openness and freedom with the fact that we have run an inconceivable amount of fence—that our region is in fact an immense, tightly latticed grid of mesh and wire? While hard numbers on fencing seem impossible to come by, it has been estimated that the 350 million acres of western rangelands managed by the BLM and USFS contain over 100,000 miles of fence. Make that a five-strand fence, which it often is, and you'd have enough wire to get from anywhere in the West to the moon and back again (yes, literally). Does all this fence define our home, or limit our freedom? Does it protect us from the outside, or simply create more outside from which we then feel a need for protection?

A fence near the Ranting Hill.
Michael Branch

Here on the Ranting Hill I too have a complicated relationship with fences, one brought to my attention recently when a new neighbor on our rural road had his property fully fenced before moving in. He chose a six-strand wire fence, 52" high with a bottom strand just a few inches above the ground. I should add that this approach of immediately fencing one's property with five- or six-strand barbed wire is the default approach here in Silver Hills, and that in choosing to leave our property unfenced I am expressing a dissenting opinion on the subject. I have done so because we are close to public lands that extend to California, and because our property is on pronghorn antelope routes and mule deer winter range. "Oh, give me a home . . . where the deer and the antelope play." It is an old idea, and still a good one. One of the pleasures of sitting at my writing desk gazing out over our property is seeing pronghorn and deer move freely across the land. After all, if they didn't I might have to quit looking out the window and actually work.

The negative impact of these kinds of fences on wildlife is very real. Although moose, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, and pronghorn can jump fences, fatal entanglement is disconcertingly common, with studies suggesting that each year one ungulate ensnarement death occurs for every 2.5 miles of fence. And fences present significant barriers to pregnant and young animals. The same study indicated that when ungulates were found dead near (but not entangled in) fences, there was one annual death per 1.2 miles of fence. 90% of these fatalities were fawns that were unable to cross the fence to follow their mothers. Multiply those casualty numbers by 100,000 miles of fence and that's a lot of carnage. Fences are also a serious hazard to low-flying birds such as swans, cranes, and geese, as well as the grouse, hawks, and owls that are native here in the sagebrush steppe. This is why northern Nevada’s 575,000-acre Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, established primarily to protect pronghorn, has removed almost 300 miles of interior fencing.

A cluster of elk at a fence line, Valle Calderas, New Mexico.

Like all landowners, I have firm ideas about what I do and do not want on my property. Although I do want pronghorn and do not want ORVs, I have plenty of rural neighbors who don't care about wildlife but choose to live in this remote area precisely because they enjoy their ORVs; other neighbors value both ORVs and wild animals, while a few don't seem to care about anything at all. But that's exactly my point. Each of us moved out here because we found town life too constraining, because we wanted to do what we damn well please with our own property and not have to conform to someone else's rules, or the values they codify. I am no different from my neighbors in this respect: I am here to indulge the fantasy that I can stake a claim to home without forfeiting any freedom in doing so.

"Don't ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up." So admonished the not-at-all western poet Robert Frost. But around here most fences, which are both labor-intensive and expensive to build, aren't keeping much of anything either in or out. Technically this is open range, but there are very few cattle on the public lands hereabouts, and in any case those few head mosey around on the other side of five barbed strands of BLM wire. With the exception of some practical horse fencing, the miles of wire that crisscross this swath of hilly high desert serve a mostly symbolic purpose. Just as it has for centuries, fencing in Silver Hills functions primarily as a statement of ownership. Speaking as a guy who is especially fond of antelope, which have the most trouble navigating the kinds of fences we build out here, I believe that the loss of pronghorn on this land is too high a price to pay for a symbolic assertion of possession.

Henry Thoreau once declared that "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one." The problem with this is that each of us thinks we're right. (It is no accident that Thoreau's neighbors didn't like him very much.) So let me back up a hitch and say not only that I recognize that some folks need fences, but that I believe all folks should have them if they want them. I'm not after anybody's barbed wire, six-guns, or rights. So in the spirit of compromise I'd like to offer some practical suggestions for how we westerners might have our fences—have them to fulfill all the real and symbolic purposes we want them to—and still radically reduce the slaughter of wildlife they are currently causing. I will summarize a few cost-effective, easy modifications that can turn our fences from impenetrable death traps into navigable obstacles.

In a moment I will refer you to several sources that offer helpful details, diagrams, information, and advice. But what I am about to tell you in this paragraph, short and simple as it is, summarizes the key findings from fence mortality research by wildlife biologists. Fences should be no higher than 42", a height above which ungulates find jumping perilous. The distance between the top two wires should be at least 12", because leg entanglement most often occurs between the top and second strands. Those of us in antelope country need to pay as much attention to the bottom of the fence as the top because, unlike deer, pronghorn are much more comfortable crawling under a fence than they are jumping over it. The bottom strand should be at least 16" off the ground (18" is better). While the middle wire (or wires) may be barbed, the top and bottom strands should be smooth, since these will make contact with passing animals, whether leaping over or shinnying beneath. If possible, the top strand should be made visible, either through the use of a white wire, or by means of any of a variety of simple flagging techniques (detailed in the sources I list below).

A pronghorn scoots under a fence.

That's it. The modified fence I've just described will effectively keep cattle or horses in (or out) in almost all situations, and will generally be no more expensive to construct (and often less expensive to maintain) than the hazardous barricades we're currently building. If you have fencing needs not related to cattle or horses—or if you don't like the design I've suggested here—there are still many cost-effective ways to make your fencing safer for wildlife. These include seasonal and/or moveable electric wire fence, high-tensile electric fence, modified post and rail fence, wire suspension fence, adjustable fence, underpasses and goat bars, lay-down fence, PVC fence, dropped rail fence, and modified worm fence. The main thing to know is that your fence can accomplish whatever you need it to while also being cost-effective and wildlife friendly. Details and instructions on a range of fencing options may be found at either of these very helpful links: A Landowner's Guide to Wildlife Friendly Fences (Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; second edition, 2012); Fencing with Wildlife in Mind (Colorado Parks and Wildlife, 2009).

Will Rogers once observed that there are three kinds of people: "The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves." But when we fail to consider the effects of the kinds of fences we build, it is not we who are harmed by the fence but rather the deer and the antelope, the grouse and owls. With a little thought about how we mark and enclose our territory, we can declare our own freedom without depriving wild things of theirs.

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