Kyle Kissock – Communications Manager

A paper published last September in the scientific journal Biological Conservation emphasizes the need for both scientists and the public to better understand the impact fences are having on wildlife and ecosystems. Click here to read.

According to the authors, while fence impacts have been researched on local, species by species basis, there has been little effort to understand larger effects of fence infrastructure on “a multitude of species, population dynamics, or ecosystem processes.”

The study acknowledges “fence ecology” is relatively understudied compared to research on habitat fragmentation by other forms of human infrastructure. This relative “invisibility” of the impact on wildlife by fences is especially troubling, given that length of landscape spanned by fences is often times much greater than better-known barriers such as roads or energy infrastructure, especially in the West. 

For example, a resourced we often cite here at JHWF is a study that monitored ungulate mortalities along 600 miles of Colorado and Utah fence for two years. It found that at least one ungulate died of entanglement per year for every 2.5 miles of fence. While we believe these numbers alone are enough to spur a broad call to action, what remains to be understood is the impact of fences on the broader ecosystem based on  mortality rates. Further, are species besides ungulates being effected? Have fences changed migration patterns? Do they reduce survival rates even among the animals that avoid entanglement?

Just as increased research will ideally help identify problematic fences posing as bottlenecks and barriers to wildlife movement, this paper also predicts more attention given to fences will help identify locations where fences are having minimal, or even positive impacts on wildlife (i.e. protection from poaching or exclusion from busy roadways).

The authors acknowledge the reality that the study of fence ecology must involve human components, and allow “cultural norms and realities” to permeate ecological discussions. Impacts on wildlife that come to light through increased research must be balanced with the social needs of land owners and land managers. The reality is that many fences cannot simply be removed from the landscape, even if they do have negative impacts.

At JHWF we’re excited to see if “fence ecology” does take off within the scientific community. New science can help us better focus our work efforts to critical areas and lead us into exciting, new frontiers of fence removal and modification. We agree that more people seeing fences for their true impact is a good thing. A broader societal understanding of the realities regarding fences can only help, as we seek the best way to reduce barriers to wildlife movement while respecting the cultural necessity of fences on our Western landscape. 

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