There’s been entire books written on the history of fencing in the West. The evolution of barbed wire, the impact fences had on the landscapes, and the range wars that ensued when fences first went up are all remarkable and fascinating stories that will forever stand in the history of the American West and the ranching industry. But when those same fences that made history are still standing today, plans to upgrade have likely been discussed.
Modern day ranchers, however, know the harsh reality of the distance between discussing a new fence line and paying for the removal of the old and construction of the new. It’s a project so costly that, often, it simply doesn’t get done. That’s why fencing projects are one of the many the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance (RSA), a nonprofit based in Malta, Montana, help cost share with ranchers in the area.
“It’s very expensive to build new fence and we have a lot of miles of it,” Kevin Koss, a rancher south of Malta, said. “I think I calculated it up at one time, and we have about 98 miles of fence on the ranch and and it’s $15,000, give or take, per mile to construct new fence and take out the old fence.”
In an ongoing project with RSA, Koss is removing a stretch of old fence he estimated to be about 70 years old and building 4 miles of relocated, wildlife-friendly fencing. The old fence did tell of some history, Koss predicting it was built by homesteaders as close to the boundary line as possible. But that exact location wasn’t the most efficient or logical place for the fence today.
“It was put in a in a poor spot to begin with, probably trying to follow the property line as close as possible, but it wasn’t good for maintenance or wildlife passage, either one,” he said. “It went zigzag down the bottom of a coulee, which presented possible erosion problems from livestock and wildlife trailing the fence and disturbing the vegetation. It was in the brush, through trees, and it was very bad for snow drifting – it’d pile on the fence and break it down. The wildlife couldn’t see it either, so there was more of a tendency to run through it than actually see it and go under or over it.”
A healthy elk population resides on Koss’ ranch and the fence in the bottom of the coulee was not only dangerous for elk travelling through, but it’s location caused extra maintenance to repair when elk did tear through sections of it. In construction of the new fence, not only was a better location for visibility chosen, but guidelines to make passage through the fence line were implemented.
“Everybody used to build fences differently,” Koss said. “Now everybody is paying more attention to the parameters of the wire. So, we try to get the bottom wire as high off the ground as we can, and the top wire as low as we can to allow ease of the wildlife passing under or over. If wildlife can get through without knocking it down, it’s good for them and us.”
By improving wildlife migration barriers, RSA can secure funding for projects like these from conservation partners with the goal of preserving and maintaining wildlife habitat.
“RSA’s work, with support of our partners with the Department of Interior, BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, through a Department of Interior Secretarial Order, basically forced all those groups to focus on big game and RSA was able to take part in that as a partner,” RSA Conservation Coordinator Martin Townsend said. “That partnership has started with a few projects, that’s led to a few more, that’s led to a few initiatives, that has now led to Pheasants Forever, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and a slew of partners putting together gigantic projects that are now in the order of millions of dollars of project help available for producers across central Montana through NRCS to do migration work.”
While the project on Koss’ ranch was geared heavily toward elk, Townsend said the majority of the fencing projects RSA is partnering on with northern Montana ranchers are aimed at improving migration for Pronghorn antelope.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time antelope prefer to go under fencing. So, if we can identify fences that are restrictive either with low bottom wires or maybe they’re woven wire sheep fence, we can then try to help ranchers identify fences that were on their list anyways – maybe they’ve gotten old and outdated or they’re hard to maintain,” Townsend explained. “Then we can help them replace those to new wildlife friendly standards and we reduce thousands of barriers for migrating big game that travel from Canada nearly to Billings.”
One of the first collaborations within the migration fencing project was with AJ Watkins, a rancher near Turner, Montana. When the railroad came through in 1927, woven wire sheep fence was built on both sides of the tracks – and it still stands for miles today, with eight miles of it on Watkins’ ranch.
“It was good in its day, but now it trains cows to crawl fence and deters antelope from going through,” Watkins said.
While Watkins has been working to remove sections of the fence on his own, he said he couldn’t complete the project in its entirety due to cost concerns. Initially, Watkins attempted to secure project funding through Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for a winter stock water project but was unsuccessful. Townsend met Watkins and learned of his project during his prior career with NRCS.
“It was a project I kind of carried with me from when I was at NRCS. He was unable to get funding through NRCS for what he wanted to do. When we had identified and inventoried his project , we noticed he had a few miles of woven wire sheep fence that didn’t really look like he used it and we asked about it,” Townsend said. “He said, ‘well, the day I can get rid of it, I will, it’s just it’s not in my way at this point, so it’s not a concern right now.”
So, when the big game migration funding came available, RSA worked with Watkins to remove four of the eight miles on his ranch so far, in addition to taking on the water project which was Watkin’s top priority.
This method of prioritizing fencing improvements in high habitat value areas while also addressing stock water issues led to the creation of an NRCS Targeted Implementation Plan called “Hydration for Migration,” which has helped to reduce barriers to funding for ranchers willing to take on fencing projects for wildlife as a part of stock water improvement projects.
Both Watkins and Koss noted how beneficial the partnership with RSA has been in accomplishing fencing projects that otherwise would have had to be done in smaller phases or perhaps couldn’t have taken place at all. Both ranchers are implementing other projects on their operations through their RSA partnerships, like tackling conifer encroachment and water infrastructure, all with the goal of not only improving the landscape for livestock but the wildlife they share it with as well.
“Working with RSA and their partners has made all the difference in the world,” Koss said. “We, just as individual ranchers, don’t have much of a voice and we don’t have the resources to go out and gather partners, whether it’s for funding or just for scientific data. And since we’ve been involved with these other groups, we’ve just had all kinds of data and funding at our fingertips, so it’s been very, very beneficial.”
By Kayla Walker for Ranchers Stewardship Alliance