Exclusion Fencing Helps Wildlife and Ranchers Co-exist on the Range
Living with wildlife has always been a part of ranching. The grazing lands and pastures livestock inhabit are home to countless species of birds, elk, deer, and more. Additionally, over the past 30 years, increasing populations of predators like grizzlies and wolves have also joined the contingent, posing new challenges to those ranching in the Intermountain and Pacific Northwest regions.
“Whether it's beehives getting torn up by bears or wolves or grizzlies getting into a calving pasture, the losses can be pretty significant,” says Steve Primm, conservation director for Bozeman, MT-based nonprofit People & Carnivores (P&C).
In 2016, the Montana Livestock Loss Board reported approximately $165,000 in livestock losses across the state due to predator-caused deaths. However, Primm explains, even just the presence of a wolf or bear in a pasture stresses animals. Panicked cows can accidentally trample calves resulting in broken legs and the weight loss from the stress alone is enough to upset any producer.
“Any human that has experience with stress, which is pretty much all of us, knows that stress makes us more susceptible to illness and it changes our eating habits,” says Primm. “I think all organisms are hardwired to get away from stressful things.”
To coexist on the range in this environment, Primm says, ranchers are using creative and out-of-the-box strategies to keep wild animals, especially predator species, at bay.
“Folks are in this (ranching) because they want to do a good job and they care about the animals,” says Primm. “Seeing your animals feeling stressed, unprotected, and getting hurt is very upsetting. While reactive solutions like killing predators get a lot of attention, proactive solutions can lower the risk of predator problems.”
Through his work with P&C, Primm helps ranchers and landowners across the American West develop new strategies to reduce carnivore-livestock conflict and crop damage. While many tactics are available, wildlife exclusion fencing, both permanent and temporary, plays a key role in allowing livestock and wildlife to share the range.
The most common style of wildlife exclusion fence used by ranchers in the Intermountain Region, Primm describes, tends to be six-strand high tensile wire fence with either alternating hot and ground wires or all hot wires. As a rule-of-thumb, Primm recommends a voltage range of 7,000 to 10,000 volts for electric fences to deter predators properly.
Funding to cover wildlife and predator exclusion fencing projects, for the most part, comes directly from landowners, notes Primm. Though, cost-sharing programs are sometimes available through government organizations like the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).
When starting a new project, Primm first assesses what the producers needs are. This includes taking into account what types of wildlife need to be excluded, what animals or items need to be protected, and if there are any hazards to humans nearby.
Currently, Primm is working on a cooperative project in Montana’s Big Hole Valley to build a fence around a livestock carcass composting facility. The exclusion fence will deter wolves and grizzlies which are starting to show up in the area again and ensure predators don’t develop a taste for livestock carcasses.
“We’re working with the watershed committee to design a fence that will be fairly low-maintenance and take into account that the facility is in fairly deep snow country,” says Primm. “We wanted something that the people who are going to oversee that site can monitor and maintain fairly easily, even in deep snow conditions.”
In addition, in the Mission Valley, just south and east of Montana’s iconic Flathead Lake, P&C is also working on an ongoing project on an area dairy farm known as Mission View Dairy. The dairy raises approximately 200 acres of corn annually to harvest for silage each fall. However, due to a growing and robust population of grizzly bears in the Mission Mountain Range, crop damage from the predators has become a major problem.
“They are going in there in August when the ears are starting to develop to eat the corn and don’t leave,” says Primm. “They are just hanging out in there eating and trampling the corn. It’s costing the dairy farmer quite a bit of money, somewhere in the range of $10,000 a year in crop damage.”
Due to the field’s large perimeter (nearly 3 miles), installing fencing to exclude predators is challenging. The typical tall, permanent fence that would normally be used to keep out bears is cost-prohibitive. As an alternative, Primm and his colleagues adapted a 3-wire short fence concept previously used to deter black bears from beehives, powered by solar. In total, Primm estimates the fence cost about $4,000 to install.
“The fence design originated in Michigan,” says Primm. “The wires are evenly-spaced with the top wire about 28 inches off the ground. So you could hop over it if you were motivated to do so. But with running 8,000 to 9,000 volts of electricity it was actually really effective at keeping bears out of the field.”
While they ran into some minor challenges with the fencing design, P&C and the dairy farmer, Greg Shock, were happy with the results they saw in 2016. They are already working on new strategies to make the fence more effective for the 2017 growing season.
“He had 27 bears in there the year before we put the fence up,” says Primm. “This past season it was only 3 or 4.”
In addition to temporary and permanent fencing options, Primm says ranchers are also using other types of anti-predator fencing such as fladry to manage livestock on the range. According to P&C, fladry is flagging interspersed on a strand of cordage, such as Turbo Wire in the case of electrified fladry, which creates a psychological barrier to predators when strung around livestock pastures.
“There are challenges with using it but the advantages to electrified fladry are that it doesn’t take a whole lot of planning in the same way permanent fence does,” says Primm. “It can be put up fairly rapidly and you get somewhere between 60 to 80 days of effective wolf deterrent out of it. And we’re discovering if you keep the voltage high enough, it also does double duty at cutting down on bears coming into pastures too.”
Along with exclusion fencing, Primm points out ranchers are also using tactics such as livestock guardian dogs, guard livestock, and range riders to help deter predators from livestock areas.
“We have way more large carnivores than we used to here in Montana,” says Primm. Because of this, it will take continued proactive efforts to ensure ranchers and wildlife can coexist. Primm suggests ranchers and landowners seek out assistance from state and federal agencies, as well as conservation nonprofits, to make these endeavors possible.