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Know the West

The Last Open Range

From Wyoming’s windswept high desert, a question for the West: Do we have to fence it all in?


SWEETWATER STATION, Wyoming — It was June, about the earliest anyone would dare to take a horse out on the plains of south-central Wyoming. In 1993, a small group of riders began a three-day trek to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail. They traversed one of the last sections of open range, where you can still see almost the same views pioneers saw in the 1840s.

Their route roughly followed the Sweetwater River east from the south end of the Wind River Mountains, where the Continental Divide slopes out onto a sweeping, unsheltered expanse of high desert. The wind-scoured, undulating hills, dotted with pronghorn antelope, are treeless except along the serpentine, scarce creeks. It’s not what you’d call a "people" place.

"You could look 100 miles without seeing a human encroachment," recalls Linda Serdiuk, one of the members of the Wind River Backcountry Horsemen who took the ride. "No cell towers. No fences. No people."

Dick Inberg, a land surveyor who usually horse-packs in the mountains, at first felt a little out of his element. "It’s different out there on the prairie," he says. "You don’t see the stars any brighter anywhere else in Wyoming. But without trees or fences" — he chuckles — "there’s nothing to tie to."

There are few places left in the United States today where the open space remains truly open, and this is one of them. Called the Green Mountain Common Allotment, it is one of the nation’s largest unfenced ranges, measuring 60 miles by 20 miles, and encompassing more than 500,000 acres. Run by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management — though there are some private parcels within it — it’s used for livestock grazing by 17 different ranching operations. Besides cattle, it supports wild horse herds and two enormous herds of pronghorn, along with a rich mix of elk, sage grouse, deer and raptors.

Back in the 1990s, the backcountry riders were not the only ones who appreciated the virtual absence of gates and cattle guards and barbed wire. Ranchers, wildlife advocates, history buffs and the BLM all agreed on one thing: Let’s keep this unique country open. "We didn’t want fences," says Tom Abernathy, a rancher who drove me around the snow-crusted Commons in his pickup last December. "We wanted to keep it this way."

But the pressures of today’s world make it difficult to hang on to this remnant of the Old West. From New Mexico to Montana, more and more miles of fence go up every day, sequestering golf courses, ranchettes, pastures, highways, factory farms.

Here on the open range, ranchers are under pressure, too. Conservation groups push for grazing restrictions to restore public lands damaged by grazing, even as changing labor markets make it tough to find range riders to keep livestock from doing more damage. And that has led ranchers like Abernathy to change their minds about keeping fences off the Green Mountain Common. "We tried it (without fence), and it didn’t work," he says. "If there’s not going to be a fence, there’s not going to be grazing here."

But there’s a lot of opposition to fencing, and not just for sentimental reasons. The sight of pronghorn snarled in barbed wire or sage grouse snared in a mesh fence has inspired campaigns around the West for fence removal, or at least modification.

"People are getting very invested and passionate in seeing fences come down," says Sharon Mader, program director of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, which runs an "unfencing" effort that’s taken down over 50 miles of barbed wire fence in the Jackson Hole area, northwest of here. On the Green Mountain Common, the struggle between fencing needs and open space is playing out on a monumental scale. It’s a good place to consider the implications. Maybe the direction the West follows is a fenceline.

For many years, I’d traveled the long north-south valleys of Nevada and the wide deserts of Utah, and I’d assumed there were vast expanses of fenceless country left throughout the West. But most fence is strangely transparent; the eye edits it out. Once I began looking for it, I saw fencing almost everywhere: zig-zagging buck-and-rail, classic barbed wire in dozens of styles, industrial mesh, thin electric wire, on and on.

More than a thousand years ago, there were already fences in North America: American Indians built them to herd and divert game into traps. But it was the colonists from Europe who first used enclosures to indicate ownership. Fences became a tool for claiming title to land that Indians had long shared in common.

The settlers who moved west onto the treeless plains found it too expensive to import wood for traditional fences. That was fine with the cattle barons of the mid-19th century West: They made their fortunes by setting livestock loose on the open range, then collecting their herds at the end of the season and driving them long distances to market across unfenced public land.

Things began to change with the federal Homestead Act of 1862, and the development of barbed wire shortly thereafter. The former gave yeoman farmers claim to small plots of land in the West, and the latter enabled them to protect their land from open range livestock. Fences didn’t always make good neighbors: Some people stole free-ranging livestock and fenced them in, while cattle barons cut through fences. That led to legendary range battles like the Johnson County War in northern Wyoming in 1892, where vigilantes hired by cattle barons attacked small homesteaders. Grudgingly, the West began reshaping itself into smaller, fenced-off parcels.

Even in Wyoming — the state with the fewest people per square mile outside Alaska — there are few patches of ground that haven’t had fences arranged on or pounded into them. Lloyd Dorsey discovered that a decade ago, when, working for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, he began looking for information about fencing around Wyoming. He was concerned about "hang-ups" — deer and other animals that get tangled in fences and are often maimed or killed, sometimes by starvation.

Dorsey was also aware of the horrific destruction of antelope in south-central Wyoming in the 1980s, when a development-minded rancher erected a 28-mile fence, made of 5-foot-tall mesh, in an area called Red Rim. The Red Rim fence enclosed public land along with the ranch’s private land, and it kept thousands of pronghorn from reaching winter range. So many pronghorn died huddled along the Red Rim fence that it became a national scandal. Eventually, a federal judge ordered that the fence be partially removed and modified so pronghorn could pass through. In 1991, the state bought the private land, declaring it "premier pronghorn winter habitat."

Yet there were few studies on the impacts of fences. "Nobody had a good database on fences," Dorsey says, "and everybody wanted one."

Dorsey dug around and found one obscure study by graduate students at the University of Wyoming, who had painstakingly mapped all the fences on BLM lands in southwest Wyoming up until 1992. The map is an extraordinary display of cumulative fencing efforts: a dense capillary mosaic of at least 1,695 fences — 49 unauthorized by the BLM — running a total of nearly 5,000 miles across much of this ostensibly undeveloped country. The only area on the map largely clear of spidery lines stretches from Sweetwater Station south to the Colorado border. The heart of it is the Green Mountain Common.

The 1992 study touches on the problem that concerned Dorsey in the first place: Fences can be fatal obstacles for migrating wildlife like pronghorn. Using overlays from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the researchers found that hundreds of fences either divided crucial winter range or hemmed migration corridors.

Since then, wildlife migration routes have become a rallying point for conservationists. Conservation biologists say that migration corridors provide critical linkage between patches of wildlife habitat, encouraging genetic diversity and warding off extinction. Dorsey, who is now with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, is part of an effort centered in Pinedale, Wyo., that works to keep a long-distance corridor open for pronghorn and mule deer, some of which migrate from Grand Teton National Park to the Red Desert, through a dizzying maze of natural gas rigs, roads and second homes (HCN, 8/18/03: Where the Antelope (and the Oil Companies) Play).

Each style of fencing presents a different degree of difficulty for wildlife. Generally, the taller the fence is, or the less clearance there is below the bottom strand, the more difficult it is for wildlife to cross. The number of strands of wire, the spacing between the strands, the spacing of posts, the amount of sag in the wires, the style of barb, and the size of mesh rectangles, are only some of the characteristics that make a difference.

Dorsey finds ranchers are often allies in the effort to open migration bottlenecks in the Upper Green. "We’re finding there are sheep-tight fences (woven mesh) out there on public land where you don’t even have domestic sheep anymore," Dorsey says. When a group like Mader’s Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation offers fence-toppling volunteers, landowners and public-land agencies are often grateful for the help.

Where fencing is still necessary, Mader, Dorsey and other unfencing activists work with landowners to make it friendlier to wildlife. Fence technology is moving ahead smartly. Sometimes the solution is as simple as installing a wooden top-rail, so elk and deer can jump over without getting snared by barbed wire. There is "antelope-friendly" fence, with its bottom wire a smooth strand 16 inches off the ground, so that pronghorn, which usually won’t jump over fences higher than 32 inches, can shimmy under. There are new kinds of temporary fence that can be taken down in sections during migration seasons. And range management futurists talk of electronic "invisible fence," designed to shock any collared animals that cross an energy field, while allowing wildlife to pass through.

"Any fencing problem can likely be mitigated," Dorsey says. "You talk about fences to people, the BLM, stakeholders, wildlife managers — everyone is interested in modification. You see (the impacts) of fences showing up more in conservation programs now, and in more environmental impact statements."

But even the most modern fence can still confuse and stress wildlife, according to a 2002 study from the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Researchers videotaped more than 500 incidents of wildlife reacting to high-tensile electric fences, which are designed to contain livestock while allowing wildlife to pass. Even though migrating elk are capable of leaping over a 52-inch-tall, four-wire fence, the reseachers found the elk paced nervously back and forth as they sized it up, had a "general attitude of ... uneasiness and apprehension," and they often left hair and skin on the fences as they crossed. Sometimes, they "flipped 180 degrees and landed on their backs when tripped up by the top wire."

Elk have less trouble with lower, two- and three-wire fences. But to their surprise, the researchers found pronghorn were confused and stressed by the fence that should have been easiest to traverse — a two-wire design with lots of space for animals to pass beneath the bottom strand. The researchers speculated the pronghorn might need time to adapt to fence they hadn’t seen before.

For many kinds of wildlife, clearly, the best fence is no fence at all. At the 278,000-acre Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in eastern Oregon, wildlife-loving volunteers are at work on a 14-year project to take down more than 100 miles of barbed-wire fence stretched across the refuge for the cattle that grazed there for over 60 years. A similar effort is under way at other refuges, including the 118,000-acre Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona, where about 200 miles of barbed wire have been removed.

Pulling fence is hard work; it takes wire cutters and gloves, hand-jacks to uproot the fence posts, and sometimes backhoes and tractors. But Bonnie Swarbrick, a planner at the Buenos Aires refuge, says volunteers flock to remove barriers to deer and pronghorn. Since the first of the year, a Boy Scout troop, Sierra Club members from around the country, a contingent from the Arizona Wildlife Federation, and ninth-graders from Colorado have all camped out to pull fences on the refuge.

"People like to do something that benefits wildlife directly," Swarbrick says. "Aesthetically, it helps too. This is one of the few places in Arizona with an unimpeded view, no man-made obstructions."

The Green Mountain Common Allotment has an unimpeded view, too, but it’s not a wildlife refuge. For generations it has been the province of stock-growers, who in the 1920s herded their sheep north from Rock Springs during the grazing season. In the 1940s, the sheep were replaced with cattle, often headquartered at ranches along the Sweetwater River to the north.

"People lived all over out here," says Abernathy, the rancher, his wind-reddened face squinting through the windshield at a landscape he’s worked in since he cooked for his dad’s roundup as a teen-ager in 1974. We’re driving south on the Bison Basin Road, a thin dirt stripe through the snow-dusted sagebrush, where Abernathy comes regularly to maintain wells that draw springwater to the dry desert surface. These days, he rarely sees people, except maybe a foreman going to check on a lonely oil well. That suits both of us. Like so much of the high Wyoming desert, the sweep here is prodigious, the sculpting of the whitened hills subtle.

Long winters and little moisture make lands like these marginal for ranching, which is a primary reason no one ever invested in fencing. It was cheaper in the old days to hire a hand to camp with the livestock. So in the 1990s, when Abernathy and the other ranchers began working with the BLM on a new plan for the allotment, they wanted to do it the old way. "They started out with this beautiful, idealistic plan," says Barbara East, a consultant out of Boulder, Colo., who was brought in by the BLM to advise the Green Mountain ranchers. "The one thing they didn’t do is research the availability of range riders." A rider who can do the kind of intensive livestock management needed, she said, could once be hired for $800 a month. Now, such riders are "a dying breed," and cost around $3,000 per month, if they can be found at all.

The solution for some ranchers, according to one BLM official, has been to practice " ‘Columbus’ ranching: Set them loose in the spring and discover them in the fall."

That kind of practice was historically not uncommon in the remote public lands of the West, but on the arid ground along the Sweetwater River, it has been destructive, partly because cattle graze differently than the sheep they’ve replaced. During the 1990s, BLM officials, with the help of retired zoologist/limnologist Ray Corning, documented the deterioration of the Green Mountain Common’s natural ecosystem, especially around streams and other riparian areas where cattle congregate.

"The problem was here long before the current drought," says Jack Kelly, director of the BLM’s Lander field office. "You lose grass species that should be there, the organic matter, the water-storing capability … We’re at a threshold. If we let it get much worse, we’re going to lose the basic ability of the system to regenerate itself."

So the BLM has cut livestock numbers and range time on the Common to 25 percent of what is normally allowed. Actual usage is even lower, more like 16 percent. Even so, a BLM evaluation in December 2002 noted that riparian areas and vegetation remain far from healthy. The intensive cattle herding that was supposed to keep livestock from stomping water resources never happened.

And now, the ranchers want fence: hundreds of miles of it. One proposal would divide the entire Common east-west, to keep livestock at the south end, out of trouble, during dry months. Other ranchers want a north-south fence down the middle, splitting the lessees into compatible groups. There are other proposals as well.

The BLM is trying to hold the line for the most part, allowing a limited number of enclosures, primarily around damaged riparian areas and small pastures. About 18 miles of such fencing have been erected in the last three years, most of it barbed wire or electric.

That’s not enough, says Abernathy, who’s considered one of the more enlightened ranchers on the Common, hard-working and concerned with keeping the range healthy. From his truck on Bison Basin Road, he points west toward the Antelope Rocks, where he wants to run a fence. "If there’s not going to be fence," he insists, "they’re going to run us out of business."

Jack Kelly, the local BLM director, has resisted big fencing projects on the Common, because of the potential impact on the elk, mule deer and pronghorn that migrate through — as well as on the several small herds of resident wild horses.

Pronghorn roam the Green Mountain area in the warmer months, and they migrate both south and north in the winter, when snow drifts and crusts the land here. In recent years, the lack of impediments has also encouraged elk to travel south from the Wind River Mountains during the summer to the Antelope Hills, re-establishing an ancient pattern of migration.

Tom Ryder, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist who has studied the pronghorn around Green Mountain, says that an east-west fence across the Common could block the majority of pronghorn from heading south in the winter — even if it’s so-called "antelope-friendly" fence. Smooth wire and 16 inches of space at the bottom won’t help, he says, when snow fills the gap under the bottom strand.

But Kelly also looks at the larger question of open space, and the freedom it signifies. "Look at the cumulative nature of fencing landscapes in the West," he says. "Look at the fencing we’ve done on these other large in-common allotments up and down the Sweetwater. It’s cumulative, what we’re doing to wildlife migration, natural landscapes, historic landscapes. People like to go out there and see an area where they see nothing but what’s natural."

Ryder has wandered and hunted in the area for years, and he is speaking for himself, not his agency, when he says: "If I’m not wearing this red (Game and Fish) shirt, I don’t want to see another piece of Wyoming carved up for just one use."

Until recently, the only recreationists on the Common were hunters, so ranchers haven’t had to deal much with fence-phobics. But now hikers are discovering the Continental Divide Scenic Trail, which runs north-south across the Common, and more history buffs are visiting the emigrant trails that converged here, including the Pony Express Route. The Mormon Church now invites its members to walk the old Mormon Trail from Sweetwater Station west, dragging hand-carts like the Mormon pioneers did on their way to the Great Salt Lake, seeing the landscape they saw 150 years ago. Tourists don’t want fences slicing through the view. And there are wild horse defenders, such as the Fund for Animals, who oppose fencing in the Common because it might harm the horse herds — an extra insult to ranchers, who blame the horses for much of the damage to the range and riparian areas.

Groups like the Fund for Animals take their pot shots from a distance. Lance and Jill Morrow live right in the neighborhood, in Jeffrey City, a wind-scoured remnant of a uranium mill company town on the edge of the Common, where many of the houses have been hijacked off foundations and hauled away. They’re biologists from Virginia who bought in here 15 years ago so they could hunt sage grouse with their hybrid falcon, and the ranchers hardly know what to make of them.

The Morrows don’t like fences, and they’re frustrated with the BLM. Their frankly expressed views have rankled the neighbors. As the falcon listens in on our conversation from a roost in the living room, tall, pony-tailed Lance Morrow says the Common is "a boat filling up with water which needs to be taken out of the water and repaired." In other words, he wants livestock removed, at least temporarily, so the land can rest and recover from years of abuse.

Even fences put up to protect riparian areas are death traps to grouse, he says, because grouse predators, like kestrels, merlins and even eagles, will perch on the fence posts and hunt. Also, grouse, like antelope, sometimes fail to see a wire fence and slam into it at full speed, suffering injury or death. "You can’t say Jack Kelly (of the BLM) is ‘holding the line’ " when he begins to install fences in the Common, says Lance Morrow.

The Morrows no longer hunt sage grouse, because where they once saw 600 grouse a day, now "it’s lucky if we see 100." The grouse, the mountain plovers, the jackrabbits whose carcasses once littered the highway, the antelope, "all the species are losing ground," Lance says.

The Morrows also no longer attend meetings of the Green Mountain Common Working Group, which was formed by the BLM to involve the various stakeholders in mapping the future of the Common. At a meeting in April 2003, Morrow voiced his views — and he has a thunderous voice when he gets going — and endured catcalls and threats. Linda Serdiuk, a leader of the Wind River Backcountry Horsemen, was at the meeting, too, and she could feel the hostility from the ranchers who sat at the back of the room with their arms crossed. She considered giving up on the process.

But in December, Serdiuk braves another Green Mountain Common Allotment meeting, held in a large, low-ceilinged, white-walled room at a Lander motel.

The talk delves into the BLM plans for 2004 — further reductions of wild horses, revised livestock numbers, some more small fencing projects. There is some grumping about "extreme environmentalists" — possibly directed at Meredith Taylor, of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, who faithfully attends the meetings. Generally, though, the tone is civil.

The BLM’s John Likins says that more new fence will be put up this year (41.5 miles around riparian areas, and 6.5 miles around pastures). But bigger fence projects will have to be studied as one alternative in a new management plan taking shape in 2004. Consultant Dick Loper wonders whether there are other "tools in the toolbox" for improving the range during drought. He mentions reservoirs, and also snow fences, which capture the moisture in blowing snow, yet don’t impede wildlife.

It may be that a huge unfenced swath of public prairie is just unrealistic in the modern era. Even conservation-minded magnate Ted Turner, famous for removing many hundreds of miles of cattle fences from his 14 ranches, has found it necessary to erect substantial new fencing to contain his bison herds, and to keep them from damaging sensitive land.

Jack Alexander, a consultant hired by the Wyoming Department of Agriculture to work with ranchers on the west side of the Common, notes that in other parts of the West, fences are added to enhance wildlife and habitat. This is the only public-private management discussion his group has participated in, he says, "where not having fences is the primary thrust."

Conservationist Meredith Taylor tells the group: "Putting up fence – that raises a real red flag with me."

Linda Serdiuk, small and erect and gray-haired, sits quietly by herself until the meeting is almost over. Not an activist like Taylor, she thinks of herself as a "middle-of-the-roader." She gets up and introduces herself as "just interested public."

In a steady, even voice, she makes a simple wish: "I want to be able to ride my horse from Colorado to Montana without hitting a fence."

Geoff O’Gara writes from Lander, Wyoming.

The following sidebar article accompanies this story:

- The New West collides with open-range laws