Will virtual fencing come to Sublette County?

Joy Ufford photo

I’ve spent my summer mapping new and existing fence lines. This aids conservation planners and wildlife officials identifying fences for replacement/conversion so producers may better manage their pastures while simultaneously lowering the risk of wildlife injury. Many summers of my youth were spent building and fixing fence; now still traversing fence and no longer young, I find myself musing on fencing in the past, present and future.

One of my most treasured possessions is a barbwire collection started by my great-grandmother and enhanced with each successive generation. The diversity of wire designs is exemplary of our continual effort to improve fence design and testament to how slow and incremental advancements have been. Little has changed from when the open range was closed in, building wooden fences in the forest and meadows, and unspooling “the devil’s rope” across rangeland.

Electric poly wire/tape fencing is the most notable innovation to fence design in the last century, but it failed to revolutionize grazing in the West. Fence construction and maintenance is an immutable part of Western culture, often seen as a rite of passage, continuous chore and source of employment for many, but that is changing with the advent of virtual fencing.

Piggybacking off other rural modernization projects (e.g. fiber-optic internet and 5G mobile networks) and the shifting cultural trend towards remote work, virtual fence is coming to Sublette County.

Virtual fence’s popularity is growing steadily abroad in Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. Domestically, there is a small but increasing number of producers using the technology, most admit that they are still “ironing out the kinks.”

The premise is relatively simple: Livestock are fitted with a device capable of tracking their movements and delivering an audible warning and electric shock if/when they cross over a predetermined boundary drawn using a Geographic Information System (GIS). The system is analogous to the shock-collar constraining “Fido” to your yard, but different in that everything is scaled up and fully automated. Large herds of livestock are being moved across wide open expanses with the click of a button.

Like any type of fencing, virtual fencing has its faults. Currently, all methods for affixing the shocking and tracking unit to the animal remain imperfect, batteries can be unreliable and signal strength can be negatively affected by the weather. While the upfront costs are high, when compared to the price of building and maintaining traditional barbwire fence, the investment is pennies on the dollar.

Virtual fence stands to be a valuable conservation tool in Sublette County, benefitting public and private land alike. Here are a few ways in which this technology may be utilized:

  • Removing fences from migration corridors
  • Excluding livestock from recently burned areas
  • Quarantining sick animals within their pasture
  • Subdividing pastures for better forage utilization
  • Limiting livestock in delicate riparian areas

Once existing only in the realm of science fiction, virtual fence lines are now here, and speaking for myself this ole troglodyte isn’t going to miss fixing fence one bit. So how will you manage your livestock in this brave new world?