Free the American West From Barbed Wire

“Wherever a farm may be located, or whatever may be its production, fence, fence, fence, is the first, the intermediate, and the last consideration,” the farmer and journalist Sereno Edwards Todd wrote in 1860. Fences keep livestock in and predators out, and both were imperative for the settlers drawn to the Great Plains by the government’s promises of free land. But on the Plains in the mid-19th century, newcomers found that timber was scarce, stone walls were impractical and “living fences,” usually thorny hedges of Osage orange, took years to grow.

Entrepreneurs raced to create an alternative, and in 1874, an Illinois farmer named Joseph Glidden filed a patent for two wires twisted together and armed with sharp metal barbs. By 1880, manufacturers were making roughly a half-million miles of it every year, promising not only security but a sense of ownership: As John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad says of his father, fences “give him a feelin’ that 40 was 40.”Since then, barbed wire has become a fundamental part of the landscape of the American West.

Mike Wilson, a rancher in northern Washington State, uses it to keep his herds safe, as his father and grandfather did. But in 2021, when Mr. Wilson and his wife, Joy, leased about 9,000 acres of rocky, high-elevation grazing land from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, they built no physical fences at all. Instead they joined a pilot program for a technology designed to fence in their cattle virtually rather than physically. It starts with two solar-powered base stations, about the size of an upright piano, topped with a 20-foot-tall radio antenna.

The base stations communicate with GPS-enabled collars worn by 145 of their grazing cows, creating a system that the Wilsons can control from a laptop — even while sitting at their kitchen table some 35 miles away. If a cow approaches one of the invisible fence lines, her collar emits a series of warning beeps. If she tries to cross it, the collar releases a low-voltage shock.

Though Mr. Wilson describes himself as “kind of old school,” he and his wife have embraced “virtual fencing,” in part because they’ve seen how easily barbed-wire fences can be destroyed in the Pacific Northwest’s ever-larger wildfires. Eight years ago, they lost 29 miles — $600,000 worth — of barbed-wire fencing to a fast-moving fire. So when they signed the lease with the Colville Tribes, a virtual fence was the cheaper and safer option.

Mike Wilson next to one of the arrays that send signals to cows’ collars.
A Wilson cow wearing the latest fashion, a monitoring device on a collar.

Virtual fencing is a new technology. So far, it has replaced only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of miles of barbed-wire fences in the American West. But it has the potential, over time, to make a sweeping impact — not just on how ranchers do business, but on how all the region’s inhabitants, human and animal alike, adapt to the ravages of climate change. With enough public and private investment, virtual fencing could go even further, helping to heal the region’s deepest historical and ecological wounds.

Joseph Glidden’s twisted-wire invention was a commercial hit, but not everyone was pleased about its success. Cowboys rightly anticipated that it would put most of them out of work; for Native American communities that had maintained their own land-use rules and practices for millenniums it reinforced and extended centuries of violent dispossession. Indigenous people already suffering from the near extinction of the Plains bison also recognized that the fences prevented bison and other large mammals from moving freely with the seasons — endangering crucial sources of protein and cultural strength.

Barbed-wire fencing can be destroyed by the Pacific Northwest’s increasing wildfires. Sometimes fires burn fence posts and leave the barbed wire on the ground, causing a hazard.

The wire grid expanded nevertheless, and in 1887, when Congress passed the General Allotment Act, or Dawes Act, which divided tribal reservations into parcels that could be sold to non-Natives, barbed wire unrolled across the reservations, too. The tribes — which had already lost much of a continent — lost 90 million more acres of land within reservation boundaries.

Today, an estimated 620,000 miles of fencing, most of it barbed wire, stretches across the rural West, and its toll on the region continues to mount. Animals that try to jump over or wiggle under barbed-wire fences can slice their skin on the barbs, or become tangled in the wire and die of starvation or predation.

Animals that are able to cross pay a high price, too. One study found that mule deer in Wyoming that migrated long distances crossed an average of 171 fences during a typical 280-mile round-trip journey, adding stress to an already punishing expedition. As climate extremes become the norm, devoting energy to detouring around barbed-wire fences can be fatal: Last winter, deep cold and heavy snow killed more than half of Wyoming’s largest deer herd.

While “wildlife friendly” fencing designs that use smooth instead of barbed wire for their top and bottom strands reduce the risk of injury and entrapment, few if any fences are friendly to all species at all times. “There’s wildlife-friendlier fencing,” said Arthur Middleton, associate professor of wildlife management and policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and an author of the Wyoming migration study, “but there’s not really such a thing as wildlife-friendly fencing.”

For ranchers, barbed wire has long been the best tool available for containing livestock, but it has never been perfect. Lyn Ellen Bennett and Scott Abbott, professors at Utah Valley University and authors of “The Perfect Fence: Untangling the Meanings of Barbed Wire,” point out that the advent of barbed-wire fencing led to a booming business in livestock salves, some advertised with gruesome illustrations of animals bloodied by the barbs. While barbed wire is far cheaper than other kinds of physical fencing, its installation is one of the heaviest costs borne by any livestock operation, and its maintenance is an endless chore.

More destructive wildfires, driven by climate change, mean this enduring technology is also less durable than it used to be. Now, for the first time in a century and a half, it faces serious competition.

The Wilsons and other early adopters of virtual fencing say it has many advantages. Click-and-drag fence lines help them to keep cattle out of specific areas at certain times or under certain weather conditions, allowing damaged land to recover or native grasses to reseed. That flexibility is good for the land and for business. As the climate changes, the ability to quickly move livestock to more productive areas, or keep them away from grass reserved for drier times, could make the difference between survival and bankruptcy.

Mike and Joy Wilson checking on their herd on a laptop.
Mr. Wilson driving to the range he leases from the Colville Tribes, an hour from his house.
The Wilsons have outfitted 145 of their cows with GPS collars.

Though ranchers and conservationists have a long history of antagonism in the West, it’s safe to say that no rancher likes the harm physical fencing does to migrating wildlife, and most conservationists recognize that well-managed ranches are easier on an ecosystem than the housing developments that often take their place.

Virtual fencing stands on this common ground: The regional organization Conservation Northwest funded the two base stations the Wilsons use, seeing virtual fencing as a chance to protect a movement corridor for elk, deer, bears, wolves, ground-nesting birds and other resident species. “As soon as we heard about it, we were all over it,” said Jay Kehne, an associate director for the group. “The more it’s adopted by ranchers, the better connectivity gains we make.”

Conservation Northwest has several other virtual fencing projects underway, including a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service on about 20,000 acres of grazing leases whose physical fences were destroyed by wildfire.

For tribal nations, virtual fencing can enhance wildlife restoration projects and protect treaty hunting rights. As tribes purchase and otherwise regain lost land, virtual fencing can help reconnect those places with existing tribal holdings. And while tribal members need fencing for their own livestock, “the tribal way is no lines on a map, no boundary markers,” said Cody Desautel, executive director of the Colville Tribes. “To the extent that we can return the landscape to a natural condition, we’d love to do that.” He added that the Colville Tribes were interested in expanding their use of virtual fencing and were considering potential locations.

Widespread adoption of the technology faces a number of hurdles. For one thing, ranchers have little financial incentive to swap out their barbed wire until it is damaged beyond repair. And virtual fencing, which is still in its infancy, comes with a learning curve for humans and cattle. Joy Wilson, who as a retired teacher is more familiar with computers than her husband is, taught herself to use the software platform and attends the online weekly help sessions offered by Vence, the manufacturer. During their first season, the Wilsons learned that securing the collars with zip ties prevented cows from prying them off, but the trick hasn’t worked for bulls, whose bulky necks make it possible for even a well-fastened collar to slip over their heads.

And while virtual fencing is very good at keeping your cows in, it doesn’t keep everybody else’s cows out. Until all their neighbors get on board, ranchers will still need at least some physical fencing. “When it comes to boundary fences, good fences still make good neighbors,” said Mr. Wilson.

The prospect of freeing the West from barbed wire has drawn the attention of entrepreneurs, researchers and public and private funders. Vence, which was purchased last year by Merck Animal Health, is the primary U.S. supplier of virtual fencing. Gallagher Animal Management is conducting trials of its virtual fencing system in Australia and North America, and the Norwegian company Nofence plans to expand into the United States.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has funded research on virtual fencing at the University of Idaho and Oklahoma State University, and last April, the Bezos Earth Fund announced a $9.9 million grant to Cornell University for the development of low-cost virtual fencing. Federal agencies have helped to fund some virtual-fencing pilot projects and individual systems, and Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico is drafting legislation that directs the Department of Agriculture to do more research on and offer grants for virtual fencing.

A view of McLaughlin Canyon in Okanogan County.

This early interest is encouraging, but it’s far from enough to fulfill the potential of virtual fencing. Doing so will require government, corporate and philanthropic support for research, and sustained public and private assistance to help with installment costs: While virtual fencing is much less expensive than its equivalent in barbed wire, each base station costs $12,500. As prices drop and the benefits accrue, however, these investments may well look like a bargain.

One afternoon this summer, I accompanied the Wilsons on a visit to their grazing lease, traveling first in a pickup truck and, then, as the terrain got rougher, in an A.T.V. Several dozen of the Wilsons’ cows and calves milled around a small pond, the cows looking either oblivious or resigned to their collars. Though Mrs. Wilson had visited the heart of the lease in person only once before, she knew its landmarks well. After all, she visits it on her laptop every day. Mr. Wilson makes the trip more regularly but he, too, comes here less often than he would without the virtual fence. “I’ll tell you one thing,” he said. “The gate never gets left open.”

One of the base stations for the fencing system stands on a stony ridge with a spectacular vantage on the North Cascades and, on the day I visited, a view of the thin layer of smoke generated by wildfires to the north. From there, it was almost possible to see a West without barbed wire.

Michelle Nijhuis is the author of “Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction.”

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