- Virtual fencing manages livestock using GPS-linked collars to train animals to stay within a set boundary, similar to an invisible dog fence.
- Coupled with the removal of existing barbed-wire fencing, it could open up whole landscapes for wildlife by removing injurious barriers for migratory herds, reducing mortality from fence strikes for numerous bird species, and protecting sensitive habitats from trampling by cattle.
- Virtual fences are easily moved with a tap on an app, and can be used to improve pasture management through rotational grazing, reduce wildfire risk, and other benefits.
- These systems are cheaper than building and maintaining physical fences, and are already in use in the U.S., U.K., Australia and Norway.
The old Figlenski Ranch in Washington state’s Tunk Valley is a rugged land of canyons and scrubby sage-brush steppe. This valley with the ranch at its center connects the Cascade and the Rocky Mountain ranges, where lynx, wolverines and even grizzly bears pass through. It’s also winter range for the state’s largest mule deer herd, and contains breeding grounds for Columbian sharp-tailed grouse.
At more than 3,600 hectares (9,000 acres), this land was part of the original Colville Indian Reservation, but had been in the Figlenski family since 1904. Ernie Figlenski was the last in his line and, just days before he died in 2021, signed an agreement with Conservation Northwest — a nonprofit working for wildlife and wildlands from Washington state to the Canadian Rockies — to purchase the land and put it under a conservation covenant. Conservation Northwest then returned the land to the Colville Confederated Tribes, who subsequently leased it to Joy and Mike Wilson, who have been ranching in the area for many years.
“We took some friends on a tour, and they said Glacier National Park had nothing on our land,” Mike Wilson says.
But beauty aside, there’s something else notable about this particular property.
When the Okanogan Complex fire came through in 2015, the fence posts supporting the barbed wire burned, and no one put them back. That’s uncommon in the American West, where fences typically crisscross ranches and public land. On this ranch, though, aside from a wire fence on one side, there’s nothing to stop mule deer or other wildlife from passing through, nor are there any physical barriers preventing the cattle from wandering off.
Yet they don’t. Instead, the cattle stay and graze their pasture in neat polygons, neither too long nor too short.
The Wilsons manage this using “virtual fencing.” The 145 cows wear collars made by the company Vence, and each has a GPS unit and an internal radio antenna. From their computer, the Wilsons use Vence software to draw virtual fences on a map of the ranch. The fence coordinates are transmitted to the collars via two radio towers: if a cow approaches the invisible barrier, its collar emits a warning beep; if the animal persists and crosses the fence line, a small shock is emitted — weaker than that from an electric fence, but enough to make the animal go back to the herd. After one or two shocks, the noise is usually enough to turn a cow around.
The Wilsons can also track the cows’ movements through an app: “Literally every morning I get a cup of coffee and see where the cows are,” Mike Wilson says.
Conservation Northwest is working with ranchers like the Wilsons to promote virtual fencing throughout Washington state. For Jay Kehne, the organization’s Sageland Heritage associate director, virtual fencing has unparalleled potential to drastically change the impact of ranching. Doing away with the need for physical fences opens up landscapes for wildlife and migratory herds, and makes life safer for bird species that collide with fences and die. The technology also allows ranchers to move fences and herds to promote healthier pastures and boost carbon sequestration by preventing overgrazing, while saving them time and money.
“It’s like ice cream, it’s so good,” Kehne says.
The problem with fences
Fences are barriers in what once were wide-open landscapes. Since the term “fence ecology” was coined in 2018, awareness of the impacts of fences is growing.
Wenjing Xu, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan, studies their impact on wildlife. She says the density of fences in the western U.S. is especially striking, with more than a million kilometers (620,000 miles) of fencing strung across private and public lands, according to a BioScience study Xu co-authored in 2020.
While many animals eventually find their way past fences, each encounter forces the animal to change its behavior. For example, in a 2023 Journal of Animal Ecology study, Xu and her co-authors found that in Wyoming, pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) encountered fences 26 and 15 times a month on average, respectively. Some moved back and forth, or traveled considerable distances along the fence, looking for a place they could crawl under or jump over. Others went in a different direction altogether. Many pronghorn came away with scratches along their backs, from crawling under the barbed strands.
“Every week, they have to try to negotiate with two to three fences,” Xu says. “That’s kind of a lot of energetic expenditure that they wouldn’t have if it [was] an open landscape that they’re migrating through.”
Not only is migration more arduous, the extra travel time might mean they miss the peak of the growing season, and don’t get the reward they were expecting on the other side. Xu says fencing might be one of the reasons some species like elk in Yellowstone aren’t migrating as often. The absence of those herds can have larger knock-on effects on ecosystems, because changes in how the land is grazed may affect the composition of plant communities.
And for some species, fences pose a more visible danger: in the western U.S., birds in general and grouse especially get tangled up in barbed wire; in Oklahoma, fence strikes were the second-most common cause of death for a grouse called the lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus), accounting for 40% of all mortalities, according to a 2007 study.
“Across all the ecological scales — from individual fitness, survival behavior, population and community — we see at every single scale of the ecology, there are impacts of fences,” Xu says.
From a rancher’s point of view, fences are also far from the perfect solution to containing cattle. First, they’re expensive to put up, close to $20,000 a mile, Kehne says, or about $12,400 per kilometer. What’s more, trees fall on them, they sag, and maintenance takes time and costs money. And once fence posts are hammered into the ground, they can’t be easily moved, locking ranchers into a grazing regime that might not be appropriate in the future.
There’s also the problem of keeping cows out of where they shouldn’t be, like creeks, where they often go to drink and wallow, which muddies the water and impacts fish. In response, three conservation organizations recently threatened the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with litigation over failure to address the impacts of cattle grazing in Colville National Forest on threatened bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus), grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) and whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) in riparian habitats.
Fencing’s virtual reality
The ability to remove barriers to wildlife while giving ranchers the flexibility to build and move fences with a few clicks sounds great. But does it work?
When the Wilsons first put on the collars, the cows were put into a “starter pasture” of about 240 hectares (600 acres).
“We have a young gal [who] works for us that likes to ride horses,” Mike Wilson says, “and I told her, ‘One or the other of us is probably going to be out there every day, bumping these cows back into that 600 acres.’”
That didn’t happen. “We basically had a 100% success rate, right from the get-go,” he says.
And even if a cow does ignore the virtual fence and “escape,” the Wilsons can see its position on the app, which makes recapturing and returning the animal to the herd simpler.
For Kehne, who has worked with farmers and ranchers on conservation initiatives for 46 years, the benefits for wildlife and ranchers are endless: ranchers can exclude cattle from grouse-breeding areas or denning areas; they can keep cattle out of streams or other sensitive riparian habitats, benefiting fish and other aquatic species; and they can use cattle to intensively graze invasive plant species, or reduce the risk of wildfires by leaving livestock in areas to eat tall vegetation down close to the ground.
Finally, they can practice rotational grazing, where a large pasture is divided up and cattle moved across the land in a way that stimulates grass growth while promoting carbon sequestration by letting grass grow more between bouts of grazing. While ranchers can, to some degree, practice rotational grazing using barbed-wire fencing, virtual fencing is potentially much more effective, because they can divide up pastures as often as they want and easily make changes from one year to the next, depending on pasture condition.
The Wilsons put their cattle on an area of invasive cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) in the spring, to stop it from going to seed and spreading, or drying out and becoming a fire risk — something they’re especially conscious of since they lost 49 head of cattle in the 2015 fire. They rotate the livestock across pastures to prevent overgrazing, have put a virtual fence around their streams, and have sectioned off some cliff habitat along the south of the property to benefit bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis).
And, Kehne says, one of the most attractive parts for ranchers is that they can do all that at a fraction of the cost of barbed-wire fencing. Vence leases the collars for approximately $50 a year, including the battery, and each transmission tower is $12,500 to buy and install. According to the Vence website, ranchers can expect up to a 25% reduction in labor costs, plus they can see a 30% cost savings with rotational grazing. Vence CEO Frank Wooten says ranchers can expect an annual return of two to 10 times their investment, depending on how they use the system.
For these reasons, Kehne says, “It doesn’t take long for a rancher or anybody that’s been doing this for a while to think this is the wave of the future.”
Caveats and cautions
While Xu says there’s a lot of excitement about virtual fencing among her colleagues, she does have questions over how this beneficial conservation technology could be implemented at scale.
As a scientist concerned about climate change, she’s cognizant that the infrastructure required also has environmental costs elsewhere in the world, and also points out that for wildlife to really benefit, old fencing must also be taken out. That can be expensive, and might require public funding, but when wildfires burn physical fences, or when old fences fall into disrepair, switching to virtual fencing may be an attractive alternative, and it may be the obvious choice for new ranches.
Some may also have concerns over increased risk of disease transmission between wildlife and livestock due to the removal of physical fencing. Kehne indicates this isn’t a concern, and Wooten points out that deer and other wildlife do already cross barbed-wire fencing (albeit with some difficulty and risk).
But barring a failure of the planetary GPS system, virtual fencing has so many advantages that interest is rapidly growing. For Vence, acquired by Merck Animal Health in 2022, this translates to roughly 45,000 of its collars being deployed already in the U.S., a number that Wooten expects to hit 75,000 by the end of this year. The company also has 5,000 collars afield in Australia, and plans to begin sales in Canada next year.
In Europe, the Norwegian company Nofence, which bills itself as the world’s first virtual-fence company, has 59,000 collars deployed on goats, sheep and cattle in Norway and the U.K., with plans to expand into the U.S. and Spain, according to its website. Other virtual-fencing systems, like those from eShepherd and Corral Technologies, are in their own trial stages.
See more of our conservation technology coverage here.
Habitat and fire management applications
Interest among ecologists is picking up, too: University of Oregon researchers have used virtual fencing to create fire breaks through intensive grazing and excluded cattle from recently burned areas so the ground can recover, with the results published in two separate studies.
Researchers from Kansas State University, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and others, are investigating how virtual fencing can improve habitat for grassland birds and riparian habitat, while Oklahoma State University received a Conservation Innovation Grant of $1 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2022 to demonstrate the benefits of virtual fencing to ranchers. And in April this year, researchers from Cornell University received $9.9 million from the Bezos Earth Fund to develop low-cost virtual fencing for the developing world.
No one is expecting all physical fences to disappear overnight: the concept of private ownership is far too ingrained, and perimeter fences will likely still be needed at least to keep the neighbors’ cattle out (if they’re not also using virtual fencing).
But this innovation may herald a less-fenced world, where ranching is lighter on the land, and wildlife regains some freedom lost when humanity began putting boundaries on what was once boundless.
“The ultimate picture that I’d pay a million bucks for,” Kehne says, “is [where] you don’t see anything on the landscape. You see a cow come up … and turn and go the other way. You see the deer run right through.”
Read more articles by reporter Ruth Kamnitzer here.
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Conservation technologies like virtual fencing, remote sensing, drones and bioacoustics continue to grow, and our staff writer Abhishyant Kidangoor covers it constantly, listen to his latest thinking here:
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