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 and originally posted at High Country News.
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.
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?
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.
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.