Don’t Fence Me In

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

Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze

And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees

Send me off forever but I ask you please

Don’t fence me in

Years ago, I recalled standing on the Arctic Coast in Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge looking south across the coastal plain towards the Brooks Range. One of my impressions was that I saw what the Great Plains might have looked like in the days before livestock. To me, it was the lack of fences which was one of the most remarkable features of that place.

Yet fences are so ubiquitous that they are virtually invisible to most people—until you are someplace like the Arctic Coast where they don’t exist. Fences run across even some of the most remote parts of the West.

The invention of barbed wire in 1874 provided an inexpensive and effective means of corralling domestic livestock on open ranges. Since that time, barbed wire has been strung across most of the western United States, including on public lands without any oversight or consideration of its negative impacts on wildlife. Not only is it a pain for humans to cross, but its influence on wildlife is also far more significant.

In many respects, given the ubiquity of fencing, it impacts on wildlife is likely higher than roads which are recognized as a significant negative influence on wildlife. The amount of fencing is astounding. One study in Alberta found that the linear extent of fences was twice that of all roads per township, 16 times the extent of paved roads, 7 times the extent of two-track roads, and 4 times the extent of gravel roads!

Yet in my experience, none of the federal agencies that regularly allow livestock production on public lands ever review or even consider the negative impacts of fencing on other wildlife.

Fences have both a direct impact on wildlife as barriers to movement or where animals are tangled in the strands of wire until they die. One study documented that fence mortality of wildlife was higher for juveniles, which may lead to an underestimation of their impact. And how many animals are injured while attempting to negotiate fences, and later die and/or more easily killed as a consequence of their injury?

Indirect impacts are subtler to document. I can recall once watching a vehicle driving across Montana’s Centennial Valley where fences trapped a group of pronghorn on either side of a road and ran for miles in front of the vehicle desperately looking for a way to cross the barrier. No doubt those pronghorns were suffering stress if nothing else due to the presence of fences.

Predators can use fences to help corral and trap prey. Although it is difficult to know how frequent this occurs, no doubt coyotes, wolves, and other predators utilize fences to slow or catch prey.

Even when fences are imposed to benefit wildlife, they can backfire. In one study in Ontario, fences were built to guide migrating turtles to safe passage across a busy highway, but instead often trapped the turtles between barriers on either side of the road and increased mortality. The turtles often could not find their way off the fenced corridor. They found almost 900 individual reptiles on the road taking all study sites into account, and the results were depressing. Between 68-90 percent of the animals were dead,

Fences are often used as a “half measure” to “fix” livestock damage to resources. For instance, a typical response to livestock trampling of riparian areas is to fence the riparian zone. This “solution” sometimes cures the direct impacts of direct cattle destruction of these valuable areas but also creates has implications of their own. Fencing riparian areas can also be an effective barrier to wildlife seeking to utilize the same areas.

Fences have only recently been recognized as a significant source of mortality for endangered sage grouse populations. Sage grouse are weak fliers, and in some areas collisions with fences is responsible for up to 30% of all annual mortality. A further problem for sage grouse is that some avian predators like ravens will utilize fence posts as lookout posts. In the otherwise tree-less terrain that is characteristic of sagebrush steppe, fences for livestock often provide the only elevated perches.

As is often the case with livestock and other economic interests, what you don’t know can’t be used against you. Since the research on fence impacts on wildlife is very limited, it is easy for federal agencies to ignore these effects. Yet it’s difficult to imagine that something as ubiquitous as fencing doesn’t have an inordinate effect on the West’s wildlife. When these impacts occur on public lands, the public has a right to demand that fences be removed until proven safe, not the other way around.






  1. Donald J. Kaleta Avatar

    Dear Interested Parties,
    Regarding fencing;as Wolf Depredation on Domestic Livestock escalates, throughout the World with the Wolves successful populations spread, the contentious anger between Producers and Conservationists does also grow. My published research Blog at http://WWW.FENCEFLAGWOLFTRAINING.COM is a tangible suggestion, with minimal cost, to mitigate the anger on both sides!

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Donald, I would imagine your fencing would be a deterrent for the little Hobby farms and ranches, might even work to some degree around calving areas out here in the west but the ultimate fix is for ranchers to have better supervision of their cattle/sheep (product)

      Wolf depredations on livestock in Montana 2017:

      “Livestock depredation by wolves during 2017 was approximately 25 percent of what it was in 2009, when it was at a peak. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services confirmed 80 livestock losses to wolves in 2017, which included 49 cattle, 12 sheep, and 19 goats during 2017”

      That’s out of 2 million head of cattle and at least a half million head of sheep.

      And keep in mind, a good percentage of depredation takes place on public lands where cattle are dumped for months at a time, again with little supervision or attention to sick or dead livestock.

      1. Hiker Avatar

        Fencing on public land is stupid!

  2. Oliver Starr Avatar
    Oliver Starr

    Even worse, there’s noMonitoring oversight or enforcement of derelict fences which are strewn across the landscape almost everywhere you look.

    I’ve taken to carrying a pair of wirecutters with me wherever I go so that I can dismember, disable, destroy, and otherwise remediate these dastardly and inconvenient obstructions that diminish my enjoyment of the outdoors and make it difficult for wildlife to do what wildlife has done for millennia.

    Fuck fences and the fuckers that strew them across the landscape.

  3. Frances Rouse Avatar
    Frances Rouse

    Great article on a problem rarely getting the attention it needs to be resolved. I saw a young deer once that had tried to leap a fence, but was snared by barbed wire instead. There was a large ditch filled with water and the deer had drowned unable to reprieve itself. The sight etched in my brain as one of the most sensless, horrific things I had ever witnessed. Currently I have an elderly family member in a legal battle over a fence installed on her property illegally – the fight is draining both emotionally and financially. Needless to say, I dislike fences intensely. Animals already face a plethora of challenges at the hand of man, trying to simply get from point a to point b should not be another. Many thanks, F

  4. Mary Katherine Ray Avatar
    Mary Katherine Ray

    I was driving along a back country road once when I came upon a large elk herd. I slowed down as they began to run. There was a fence in their way and one of them got hung up in it as she tried to leap over. She frantically and finally exerted a herculean effort to clear it, but collapsed on the other side. Probably the barbed wire cut an artery and she bled out. It was horrible to watch and so senseless.

  5. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    Brings up history-that unforgiving discipline of fact finding that paints a dark picture of the exploitation of the west that hollywood and corporate enterprise still wish to gloss over.

    Fencing became a necessity to keep the rich investors cattle off from private lands. During the early days at the end of the civil war the government was lobbied heavily by investors in the livestock market to leave “public domain” lands and Indian reservations unfenced to provide free pasture for the hordes of cattle being driven from the southern portion of the U.S. (like Texas) to northern rail heads. The government went along. The fur and plume trade which had flourished by the killing of millions of native animals was winding down and becoming unprofitable. The once endless supply of passenger pigeons and bison was also failing. The “Indian War” was about 70 years along and the so called native American “threat” to commerce was greatly reduced and more land could be “colonized” under the homestead act.

    The American cowboy, a persona of much romantic nostalgia was really just a pawn in the game of modern profiteering. They drove the rich investors cattle up to the rail heads alright but at the expense of the forage and soil. As the price of beef went up more people got into the ranching business and the number of homesteaders also increased. The government could not enforce a no fencing policy on private land, which now had to be fenced to keep “free roving” cattle out so that the individual ranchers and farmers could hope to make a living without the competition of outside trespassing cows. Thus fences began to multiply. A product of the traditional capitalistic system.

    There are some practical uses of fencing. The protection of wildlife watering devices and sufficient cover around them come to mind. I have personally witnessed human vandalism and the negative effects of over-grazing around “guzzlers”, springs and seeps in California. The only practical way of protecting these water resources was to fence them in some fashion so as to make it harder for people to shoot them up and dump garbage in them. Fencing also kept cattle away so protective cover could be established for the benefit of smaller wildlife specie. In other areas where there are still some large animals such as deer, pronghorn and elk left, fencing is much more problematic. I have witnessed piles of pronghorn bones in fence corners where they were trapped by snow drifts in Wyoming for example.

    In many ways America is stuck in the old, stupid, capitalistic cycle of exploiting resources until they reach economic extinction and then moving on to something else etc.. Unfortunately nothing is sacred. Animals are exploited, people are exploited and even our water and air are under attack and essentially the whole planet is now dying because of it.

    -but as an ancient Roman scholar once said- “Only the ignorant despise education”—–

  6. jim Coda Avatar

    I wrote a blog about fencing at Point Reyes National Seashore which treats private ranching on national park lands as a higher priority than the protection of wildlife.

    The park is now in a planning process, thanks to a lawsuit filed to require a planning process, with one alternative being to extend private ranching on park land for another 20 years and to “remove” all the elk in the ranching part of the park. Removal means shooting the elk because an unknown number of them have Johne’s Disease which the elk got from the cattle years ago and that essentially precludes relocation outside the park.

    What it boils down to is that the ranchers don’t want the elk eating “their” grass. (The park doesn’t allocate any grass for elk.) The ranchers also only pay a fraction what ranches lease for outside the park.

    The Park Service is also against “wildlife-friendly” fencing which I discuss at length. Even BLM and the Forest Service have guidelines for wildlife-friendly fencing.

    My blog is at

  7. Frank Renn Avatar
    Frank Renn

    George Wuerthner refers to Sage grouse as being weak flyers, and that is the reason they collide with barbed wire fences. There is a lot going on that suggests the opposite is true concerning their flying abilities. In the past I was involved with the sport of falconry. I was able to spend time in the field with fellow falconers who flew large falcons at Sage grouse. Outcome, more often than not the grouse got away. This makes sense as Sage grouse evolved with Golden eagles. In addition there is a population of Sage grouse on the Montana/Canadian border whose seasonal migration covers 150 miles. Being a ground dwelling bird it makes sense that they spend time flying at sage top level and do not detect barbed wire. They seem to be able to avoid barbed wire when flashing is attached to the wire.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

George Wuerthner