Students working on new fence
“Sometimes, the simplest things can help wildlife.”

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam

Where the deer and the antelope play

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word

And the skies are not cloudy all day

~Brewster Higley

Sad to say, but that wide-open home on the range that Bing Crosby sings about in Brewster Higley’s “Home on the Range” has been steadily diminishing with every passing decade, as the Western landscape has been sliced and diced by roads and barbed-wire fences.

Danger on the Range

Today, only an extremely savvy deer or antelope (or elk, moose or bighorn sheep) can move freely across private and public lands. Wild ungulates may have co-evolved nicely with carnivores on the top of the food chain, but they are overwhelmed by the “metallic carnivores” that roam highways. They also have little defense against the snagging attacks of barbs on fences.

What can we do about it? As with every bit of technology we invent, humans can learn to adapt to their downsides. There are ways to make things safer for wildlife.

Safer Crossings

Students working on a new wildlife fence.

With that goal, Colorado State University and Front Range Community College enlisted some of their students to take down gates and make road and fence crossings safer for deer, elk and antelope. The project—on the Roberts Ranch in Larimer County—was financially supported by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Ranch Manager Zach Thode championed the efforts on the 17,000-acre ranch. The working ranch is in a conservation easement, and Thode says he takes the conversation part of his job seriously.

The new gates result in less wildlife mayhem on highways and fewer cases of animals getting snagged on barbed wire, where they die painful deaths.

Eliminating Barbed Wire Gates is Remarkably Simple

Install two four-foot-tall posts 17 inches apart. Voila! Cows, horses and mules are too broad to pass through, but ungulates easily slip past. Then take down the gates and count the comings and goings on a trail camera.

Students standing on new fence.

An alternative model constructed by CSU and FRCC places a log horizontally on vertical supports, 40 inches above the ground. That allows antelope to pass underneath safely, while deer and elk can easily jump over. Cows are blocked because they have too much mass to make the jump.

What’s amazing is that the fixes are inexpensive, costing just $100 in materials. And the students and their teachers who do the work come away enriched with the knowledge that they have increased the ability of wild animals to move about safely.

Don’t Fence Me In

Since this piece opened with a lyric about freedom, here’s a fitting conclusion to this modest effort that makes the West safer for wildlife:

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.

~Cole Porter

This blog post was co-written by Rick Knight, professor emeritus of wildlife conservation at Colorado State University.

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