Small changes can make a big difference

RAISING THE BAR Ensuring the bottom wire is 45 cm off the ground means animals can safely pass under the barbed wire

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Like raised welts from a brutal whipping, barbed wire fences crisscross Alberta’s native grasslands as far as the eye can see. Many landowners are aware of the injury and mortality the unforgiving fences can cause wildlife, but the prospect of switching all bottom barbed wire for the safer smooth variety is a daunting task.

“For ranchers who are putting up new fence or replacing old fence, certainly they can get hold of us or the Alberta Conservation Association (ACA), and we can discuss some more wildlife-friendly options that at the end of the day don’t cost them any more money and don’t compromise the containment of their cattle, but can make a big difference for wildlife,” said T.J. Schwanky, wildlife projects facilitator for the Alberta Fish and Game Association (AFGA).

The AFGA has smooth wire available for replacement projects, but time can be a limiting factor for many producers. However, there are other modifications that can be made to help combat the barbed wire fence problem.

While pronghorn suffer from the fences, they are not the only species that can benefit from improvements. Birds like the sage grouse and sandhill crane have been found dead, ensnared by barbed wire fence. Grotesque discoveries of deer and even elk twisted almost beyond recognition in fences have startled even the most seasoned outdoorsmen.

Some solutions suggested by the AFGA and the ACA are easy to implement with existing fence, and are neither time consuming or costly.

One option is an underpass fence with a goat bar. It’s a simple PVC pipe that raises the lowest wire and affixes it to the next wire above it. This method allows wildlife to scamper safely under the wire, but the modification is easily reversed by removing the PVC piping if the pasture is being used by calves. This modification doesn’t just help pronghorn — other species such as mule deer and white-tailed deer will go under rather than over if it is easier for them. It’s also inexpensive — the modification can be made at known wildlife crossings, or in a few strategically chosen spots along a fenceline.

Alternatively, landowners can raise the bottom wire and lower the top wire at certain places such as corners and known crossings. This allows for adjustment as necessary, and better movement under and over the fence. Increasing the visibility of a fence line can reduce the death toll for animals both on the hoof and the wing. Reflectors can be affixed or hung from the top wire, and many materials can be used. Some people hang old CDs which reflect light and are highly noticeable, even to an animal on the run. Care should be taken not to use materials that cattle may find appetizing. Visibility is especially important at known wildlife crossings, near wetlands, streams, dugouts, and near wildlife corridors.

When building new fences, a four-wire model should be used, with a double-stranded smooth bottom wire 45 cm above the ground, and a smooth top wire no more than 100 cm in height from the ground. Mortality in winter can be greatly reduced by leaving a gate or two open in pastures not being used by cattle. This is often a workable solution as many producers bring their cows into a more condensed feeding herd closer to home, leaving many quarters unoccupied. For more information on friendly fencing, visit ab-conservation.com.

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