Unfencing the West: BLM highlights power of virtual fencing

BLM Rangeland Specialist Kristy Wallner leads a tour of mountainous terrain north of Gypsum on Wednesday 14th September 2022.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Kristy Wallner casually placed her hand on the barbed wire that lay on a fence separating sheep from cattle. The metal partition, erected in the 1980s, currently stretches 14 miles across pastures in the highlands north of Gypsum.

“One big project in our office that we’ve worked on together is interior fence removal,” she said. “This side is the Trail Gulch allotment, and in it there are interior fences that go down to the (Colorado River).”

Under an overcast sky punctuated by light breezes and a light drizzle on Wednesday, she and the Bureau of Land Management’s Northwest Resource Advisory Council led a tour of various specialists, former Colorado County commissioners, representatives from U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert and more.

Wallner is a BLM pasture specialist. She has helped lead efforts to better control soil erosion and improve wildlife habitats by promoting practices such as virtual fencing technology and certain vegetation treatments.

For example, at Trail Gulch, the BLM has hired youth corps to help remove wire from range fences and reuse it or give it to ranchers to reinsert in their stockyards, Wallner said. The idea is to fill in those gaps from distant fence lines with virtual fences.

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

She came across virtual fence technology at a goat pasture school. Apparently New Zealand and Australia had introduced virtual fencing. This prompted her to approach virtual fencing company Vence to help deploy a pilot program led by BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office.

BLM Rangeland Specialist Kristy Wallner speaks about virtual fences on Wednesday, September 14, 2022.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

By using and building network towers, the geofencing sites can create virtual fences in a 12-mile radius. The towers give signals to all animals with a collar. Collars cost about $50 a head and take about three years for cattle to become accustomed to.

BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office — 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 collared cattle. There are already four of these towers in Garfield County and another 10 in Eagle County.

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To put things in perspective, a rancher received an estimate to regularly fence off US Forest Service and BLM land. Estimate for two miles of fence: $90,000.

Patty Luby, Assistant District Manager, BLM Northwest Office, takes a soil sample.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

“If you think about your tools as a manager, it’s the timing, duration, and frequency of your stocking rates,” Wallner said. “We can manipulate all of this on another level with invisible fences. And the nice thing is, there isn’t one (National Environmental Policy Act). There is no bulldozer.”

Hilary Boyd, deputy field manager for resources at the Colorado River Valley Field Office, said there are endless possibilities with this new technology, saying, “You can sit at your screen and figure out where you want to fence.”

“It gives us a lot more flexibility,” she says. “In cases where we feel wildlife is being impacted and with another tool that producers can use to manage livestock in a way that they need, then yes, maybe we’ll try this one to remove the fence.”

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The ultimate goal of virtual fencing is to both improve pasture health through rotational grazing and of course improve wildlife habitat. Not only do ranchers save money by doing away with regular fencing, but they can also keep animals out of fire and riparian areas.

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

This helps boost 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 gathering cows and “hoof actions” filling in seed — as well as Wallner mowing 2,021 acres and acres of sagebrush — the disturbed samples proved the soil was carrying more moisture. Meanwhile, soils in pristine pastures proved drier and less likely to retain 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, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Habitat Partnership Program, the Grazing Advisory Board and Grazing Permits — continues to encourage more producers to participate and transition to virtual fencing.

“It has to grow,” said Wallner. “We’re not where we need to be. We don’t even know all the questions to ask, but we’ll find out.”

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