Unfencing the West: BLM highlights the power of virtual fencing

BLM course specialist Kristy Wallner leads a tour through mountainous terrain north of Gypsum on Wednesday, September 14, 2022.
Ray K. Erku / Independent Post

Kristy Wallner nonchalantly put her hand on a barbed wire lining atop a fence separating the sheep from the cattle. The metal bulkhead, erected in the 1980s, currently stretches 14 miles across the high pastures north of Gypsum.

“A big project in our office that we teamed up on is removing interior fencing,” she said. “This side is Trail Gulch allotment, and there are interior fences that go down to the (Colorado River).”

Under overcast skies punctuated by light 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 Moreover.

Wallner is a specialist in BLM journeys. She helped lead an effort to better mitigate soil erosion and improve wildlife habitats by promoting practices such as virtual fencing technology and certain vegetation treatments.

For example, down to Trail Gulch, the BLM has hired youth corps to help remove wiring from course fences and reuse it or donate it to ranchers to reinstall in their stockyards, Wallner said. The idea is to fill these voids of the deleted fence lines with virtual fences.

“We’re looking at other ways to recycle it,” she said.

She discovered virtual fence technology at a goat grazing school. Obviously New Zealand and Australia had virtual fences in place. This prompted her to contact virtual fencing company Vence to help deliver a pilot program run by BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office.

BLM Course Specialist Kristy Wallner discusses virtual fences on Wednesday, September 14, 2022.
Ray K. Erku / Independent Post

By using and erecting what are essentially network towers, geofencing sites can virtually create fences within a 12-mile radius. Towers provide signals to any cattle with a collar fitted around their necks. The collars cost around $50 a head and take about three years for cattle to get used to.

BLM’s field office in the Colorado River Valley — Wallner’s base of operations — manages acreage in Garfield, Mesa, Eagle, Pitkin, Routt and Rio Blanco counties, according to its website. In that area alone, there are now about $100,000 worth of virtual fences covering half a million acres, Wallner said. That’s more than 2,000 head of cattle fitted with a collar. There are already four such towers in Garfield County and 10 more in Eagle County.

To put things into perspective, a rancher received an estimate to install a regular fence on U.S. Forest Service and BLM land. Estimate for two mile fence: $90,000.

Patty Luby, deputy district manager of BLM’s North West office, collects a soil sample.
Ray K. Erku / Independent Post

“If you think of your tools as a manager, it’s the timing, duration, frequency of your storage rates,” Wallner said. “We can manipulate everyone on a different level with invisible fences. And, what’s beautiful is that there is no (National Environmental Policy Act). There is no bulldozer line.

Hilary Boyd, assistant resource manager at 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 think there is harm to wildlife and, with another tool that producers can use to manage livestock as they wish, then, yes, maybe we will consider removing that fencing.”

The ultimate goal of virtual fencing is both to improve range health through rotational grazing and, of course, to improve wildlife habitat. Not only do ranchers save money by avoiding ordinary fencing, but they can also keep animals out of burnt and riparian areas.

Cows stand in pasture north of Gypsum on Wednesday September 14, 2022.
Ray K. Erku / Independent Post

This helps boost soil health and its ability to retain moisture, and Wednesday’s tour included participants taking soil samples from disturbed and undisturbed fields.

With the help of cow herding and seed packing by “hoof action” – along with acres and acres of Wallner sagebrush mowing in 2021 – disturbed samples have proven that the soil carries more humidity. Meanwhile, undisturbed pasture soils were found to be drier and less likely to hold water and become more stable.

“Research shows that if you increase organic matter by 1%, you increase water volume by 10%,” she said.

The pilot program — in partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Habitat Partnership Program, Grazing Advisory Board, and grazing licensees — continues to encourage more producers to participate and transition to virtual fencing.

“He has to grow up,” Wallner said. “We are not where we need to be. We don’t even know all the questions we need to ask, but we are trying to find a solution.


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