Killer Fences of the New West

Column by Hal Walter

Fences – August 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

AT FIRST it just looked like a rock anchoring the _barbed-wire fence, the same way that rocks anchor ramshackle barbed-wire fences all over the West. But then I thought I saw it move.

There was a band of beef cows and calves milling around, and it occurred to me that a calf might be caught in the wire. As I drew closer it moved again and I saw that it was indeed a calf — a spotted elk calf — hanging by its front leg, twisted in the wire. The moo-cows ran away as I approached, but the elk calf lay still, breathing with great labor.

The scene was grisly and told of a struggle that probably began the previous night. Apparently the herd had passed through the shiny new fence with four equally spaced strands of barbed wired. But this little calf had gotten stuck in the wire and had been left behind. The bottom two strands of the wire were coated in blood and hair for about two feet in either direction. The calf’s front leg was held tight by the two bottom strands which were firmly twisted around it. It was apparent that the elk calf had been caught by its rear leg at some point as well.

On the slope above, at the new house on the property this fence surrounds, nobody was stirring. It was late morning and there was no telling how many vehicles had passed within a few feet of where the elk calf lay in plain view of the road. Now the hot July sun was baking and dehydrating the elk calf, just as it had been doing since dawn. The flies had closed in to gnaw at the exposed flesh, where the skin had been peeled away by the wire and its razorlike barbs.

Many people get badly hurt trying to release deer and elk from fences, so I approached this situation very carefully. The safest way to release an animal from a fence is to simply stand back and cut the wire.

But the only tool I had with me was a Buck knife.

I approached the animal slowly. The wire was twisted so tightly that it took all the strength in my bare hands to pry the bottom two strands wide enough apart to free the leg. After some twisting of the wire, and a few cuts to my hands, the hoof slid through and dropped to the ground. The elk calf let out a faint, pathetic squeal.

I walked down to the small stream just a few feet away, cupped some water in my hands, and brought it back up to the elk calf. It wasn’t interested, so I dribbled it over its snout, hoping that some of the moisture would get into its mouth or at least help to cool it off. There was no shade nearby and I didn’t want to try to handle the animal anyway — I did not wish to put too much of my scent on it, or get kicked into my next life. I bent down and looked into its eyes and saw there that everything I believe and have written about the evils of development is absolutely true.

I was afoot, a couple of miles from home, and I wanted to do something other than just leave the helpless animal there to die in the sun. I wondered how many people had just driven past this mess either too fast to see it, or too disconnected to care. Now I wished someone, anyone, would drive by.

And soon someone did. It was a young couple, Mike and Jen Smolik from Colorado Springs, traveling this scenic back road to Cañon City. They gave me a ride back to my house and I phoned the sheriff’s office before driving back with my wife Mary to the elk. There we found Mike and Jen had cut short their trip to resourcefully accomplish what I had wanted to do.

Instead of taking the elk calf to shade, they had brought the shade to it by draping a blanket over the top wire of the fence and holding it out over the animal. Already the number of flies had diminished and the baby elk was breathing much easier.

Still I didn’t hold out too much hope for this critter. I figured that the authorities would arrive soon, and that a bullet from a service pistol would probably end its suffering. Every now and then the elk calf would rock sideways a little as if it were trying to get to its feet. I gently nudged it a couple of times with my foot and the back of my hands, urging it to get up. But it couldn’t muster the strength.

We waited some more, and still the authorities did not arrive. I decided to try giving the elk calf some water from a water bottle. However, as I crouched down to it, the little elk bounced to its feet, turned, then slammed right back into the fence. It bounced off the tight wires, turned back around in the opposite direction, and ran across the road. The rear leg was obviously stiff and causing it some pain, but it was clearly not broken.

We watched the elk calf climb the steep ridge on the other side of the road. Every now and then it would pause and I expected it to lie back down. But instead it seemed to gather more strength with every rest stop, until it had at last reached the top of the ridge. It actually trotted over the summit.

I’m not so naive as to think this was a Hollywood ending. The elk calf was very young and there are many predators in this neighborhood; furthermore, the cuts in its legs were an opening for infection. But elk are extremely hardy animals, and if by some fate of nature the calf was rejoined with the herd that evening, it might have a chance.

* * *

THE WEST used to be a land of sprawling ranches divided by miles and miles of barbed-wire fences. Most stockmen had too much fenceline and too little money to make a big deal out of fences. They used juniper branches for fence posts and three strands of wire, the statutory definition of a “fence” in Colorado. Quite often, when an elk or deer became caught in one of these fences, the animal would break free. Sometimes they would just hang there and die, too.

Now many of these ranches are being subdivided into 35- and 40-acre ranchettes, and the new owners fence them off with several strands of razor-sharp wire to keep a few head of cows or a couple of horses. This accounts for many, many more miles of fence. It takes about one mile of fence to surround the average 40-acre ranchette. In Custer County alone, there are roughly 1,000 35- to 40-acre lots.

Worse yet, many Westerners — both newcomers and oldtimers — don’t know how to build a fence that will keep livestock inside while allowing indigenous wildlife to pass safely over and under.

In the case of the fence that caught this elk calf, it was built right across an historic thoroughfare for elk. The owners of the property built their home a couple summers ago, and are not full-time residents.

They probably haven’t spent enough time on their own land to know just how many elk regularly cross there. I’m no major fan of laws or rules, but this is one instance where I believe something should be done. In a region where uniform building codes are often a topic of debate, a uniform fencing code seems more appropriate, and more necessary.

Through its Habitat Partnership Program, the Colorado Division of Wildlife is attempting to help landowners make the right decisions when it comes to dealing with wildlife habitat issues. The program uses Habitat Partnership Committees to deal with these issues on a local basis. In its booklet “Fences for Man and Beast,” the Sangre de Cristo Habitat Partnership Committee offers plans for fences that are safer for wildlife.

The booklet is available at the Custer County zoning office.

In country where deer, elk and antelope live, this book recommends fences should be no more than 40 to 42 inches high. The top two strands should be spaced 12 inches apart so that adult deer and elk will have less of a chance of becoming entangled when jumping. Preferably, the fencetop in deer and elk country would be made of wood. But since this is usually not cost-effective or practical, smooth wire is recommended.

The bottom strand should be smooth wire placed at least 16 inches above the ground so that deer fawns, elk calves, and antelope of all ages, can freely pass beneath. (Even adult pronghorns do not jump fences but crawl under them instead.) If the bottom strand is barbed, the animals may get caught in it and damage the fence.

Fences are a by-product of development and they are literally traps for wildlife. As more and more of this region is subdivided, thousands upon thousands of miles of new fence will be constructed. The guidelines outlined by the Habitat Partnership Committees are the only hope we have of keeping these fences from dramatically impacting our wildlife herds. Maybe these guidelines should be law. After finding that elk calf hanging from the barbed wire, I’m convinced of it.

Hal Walter writes from his mostly smooth-wire fenced burro ranch in the Wet Mountains. He remains devoted to the Edward Abbey credo, “God bless America. Let’s save some of it.”