Forest Service sees benefits in bringing virtual fencing to North Routt |

Forest Service sees benefits in bringing virtual fencing to North Routt

Fence lines like these are probably not going to go away, but the U.S. Forest Service and a number of ranchers have started exploring virtual fencing as a way to manage livestock and the land they use.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Editors note: This story was updated Tuesday, Sept. 27, to reflect that the K Ranch is 60,000 acres not 160,000 acres.

Baili Foster envisions a day when fence posts will be replaced by signal towers and barbed wire by an invisible barrier, created by a livestock collar controlled from a cell phone.

Foster, the District Rangeland Program manager for the U.S Forest Service, is in the process of bringing virtual fencing to North Routt County.

“We’re focusing in North Routt, and we’re just on the front end of it,” said Foster. “We were out surveying sites (last week). Depending on topography, the coverage is really, it’s pretty variable, but with our initial phase, we’re able to cover 70,000 acres with three towers, which is pretty phenomenal.”

Foster wants to use virtual fencing where collars replace physical fencing to manage the livestock that’s permitted to graze on U.S. Forest Service land. The cattle will have collars that send out an audio signal when the cattle approach a boundary. If the animal continues, it will get a shock in much the same way an invisible, electric dog fence works.

She said the benefits include improving ranchers’ ability to keep livestock in a specific area, allowing for the implementation of rotational grazing techniques that improve wildlife habitat, keeping livestock out of sensitive riparian or burn areas, and more easily monitoring the animals’ wellbeing.

“The problem with a physical fence is, in the forest up there, we’ve got a lot of dead standing timber that is just coming down every single day and is damaging fences. We also have huge elk herds moving through that also knock the fence down,” Foster said. “To monitor all of the fence in the forest is a huge task, and there’s also a lot of areas where there’s no fencing at all due to the historic sheep grazing.”

Foster said the plan is to install three towers in North Routt County near the Wyoming border to get the program off the ground.

“We’re lucky up there with the meadows, the park and the way the peaks align themselves really well for the towers and the technology,” Foster said. “We’ve met with Vence (which makes the virtual fencing, livestock management system for cattle) several times, and I’m doing the cultural surveys for the towers, and we have to do some comm surveys to make sure they don’t interfere with any communication sites.”

She is optimistic that if she can arrange funding, the first phase, planned for the Whiskey Creek, King Solomon area, will be operational by next summer.

Foster has scouted locations for 10 towers, but is still working on securing funding for the project. The towers cost $12,500 each, and collars are just under $50.

“Ideally, we would start with three or four towers, but if I get funding, then we’re going to go as big as we can,” Foster said.

Michael Moon, who manages the Home Ranch and the 60,000-acre K Ranch in Moffat County, worked with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management this spring at the K Ranch to implement virtual fencing.

“We collared about 300 cows with these virtual fence collars this spring,” Moon said. “There’s a learning curve involved getting used to the system, but it’s working.”

In the case of the K-Ranch, Moon said the system was effective because a lot of the physical fencing was in bad shape and in need of repair. Currently, the cost of replacing that fence, depending on what kind of fence was needed, could cost $30,000-$40,000 when installed by a contractor in rough terrain.

“If you were building fence yourself, you can save quite a bit, but it’s still expensive,” Moon said. “Just a few years ago, you could build a mile of fence for $4,000 or $5,000 for the material, and now you’re talking like $15,000- $20,000 worth of material to build a new fence.”

Moon added that the new system comes with some added perks.

“It’s really expensive to build fence, and fence is not the best thing for managing wildlife,” Moon said, “We were able to kind of implement rotational grazing practices, which is better for the land, without having to build a lot of fence.”

He said it’s not perfect, but he believes the technology will make things easier.

“I won’t say it’s working perfectly the first year, “ Moon said. “We’ve had a lot of lessons just learning how it works, but overall it’s been a positive experience.”

Foster is hoping she can win over more ranchers in the next few years.

“I would love to see physical fence come down wherever it’s feasible. I understand physical boundary fences might still be required more for the human component and trespass issues, but if we can aid the movement of wildlife and decrease them getting up in fence, it would be fantastic,” Foster said. “I think it’s the biggest thing in ranching since physical fence — it’s going to be a real game-changer.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.