Unfencing the West: BLM highlights power of virtual fencing
Kristy Wallner casually rested her hand on barbed wire lining atop a fence separating sheep from cattle. The metallic partition, erected in the 1980s, currently stretches 14 miles across high-country pastures north of Gypsum.
“A big project in our office we’ve teamed up on is removing interior fences,” she said. “This side is the Trail Gulch allotment, and there’s interior fences in this that go down to the (Colorado River).”
Beneath an overcast sky punctuated by slight breezes and light drizzle on Wednesday, she and the Bureau of Land Management Northwest Resource Advisory Council were leading a tour of various specialists, former Colorado county commissioners, representatives of U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert and more.
Wallner is a BLM rangeland specialist. She’s helped spearhead an effort to better mitigate soil erosion and improve wildlife habitats by promoting practices like virtual-fence technology and certain vegetation treatments.
For instance, up Trail Gulch, the BLM has hired youth corps to aid in removing wiring from rangeland fences and re-using it or giving it to ranchers to re-implement in their stockyards, Wallner said. The idea is to fill these voids from removed fence lines with virtual fencing.
“We’re looking at other ways to recycle it,” she said.
She came across virtual-fence technology in goat-grazing school. Evidently, New Zealand and Australia had implemented virtual fencing. This prompted her to reach out to virtual-fencing company Vence to help supply a pilot program being spearheaded by BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office.
Using and erecting what are essentially network towers, the geofencing sites can virtually create fences in a 12-mile radius. The towers provide signals to any livestock with a collar equipped around their neck. Collars cost about $50 per head, and it takes about three years for the livestock to get used to it.
BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office — Wallner’s base of operations — manages surface acres in Garfield, Mesa, Eagle, Pitkin, Routt and Rio Blanco counties, according to its website. In this area alone, there’s now about $100,000 worth of virtual fencing covering half a million acres, Wallner said. That’s more than 2,000 head of cattle collared. There are already four of these towers in Garfield County and another 10 in Eagle County.
To put things in perspective, one rancher received an estimate to put in regular fencing on U.S. Forest Service and BLM land. The estimate for two miles of fence: $90,000.
“If you think of your tools as a manager, it’s timing, duration, frequency in your stocking rates,” Wallner said. “We can manipulate all those at a different level with invisible fences. And, the beautiful thing is, there’s no (National Environmental Policy Act). There’s no dozer line.”
Hilary Boyd, assistant field manager for resources in the Colorado River Valley Field Office, said there are endless possibilities with this new technology, saying, “You can sit on your screen and figure out where you want to fence.”
“It gives us so much more flexibility,” she said. “In cases where we feel like there is a detriment to wildlife, and, with another tool that producers can use to manage livestock the way they need to, then, yeah, maybe we look at taking that fence out.”
The ultimate goal with virtual fencing is to both increase rangeland health through rotational grazing and, of course, improve wildlife habitat. Ranchers not only save money by eschewing from regular fences, but they can also keep animals out of burned-out and riparian areas.
This helps bolster soil health and its ability to retain moisture, and Wednesday’s tour included participants taking soil samples from both disturbed and undisturbed fields.
With the help of congregating cows and “hoof action” packing in seed — as well as Wallner mowing acres and acres of sagebrush in 2021 — the disturbed samples proved the soil carries more moisture. Meanwhile, soils in untouched pastures proved drier and less likely to retain water and become more stable.
“The research shows that if you increase organic matter by 1%, you increase water volume by 10%,” she said.
The pilot program — partnered with Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Habitat Partnership Program, Grazing Advisory Board and grazing permittees — continues to encourage more producers to participate and transition to virtual fencing.
“It needs to grow,” Wallner said. “We’re not where we need to be. We don’t even know all the questions we need to ask, but we’re figuring it out.”
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