Barbed Wire’s Impact On The History Of The West

Ken Walcheck

It  was a crisp late October morning, many decades ago, as I followed a faint deer trail blanketed with smoky gold cottonwood leaves in a remote part of southeastern Montana bordering the Powder River. Further up the trail, I encountered a homestead cabin that showed decades of weathered deterioration.  Like migrating geese who leave no trace of their passage behind, I could not see any type of chronometer that would enable me to date the age of the homestead.

Musing on this question, I stepped though the cabin’s open doorway, sensing the history of the place. I felt a desire to look for any clues left by the homesteader to give me a window of the past. A pungent smell of rodent droppings and mold spewed from the darkened interior as I searched for some clue that would give me a yardstick as to its age. Finding nothing, I went outside, and found that chronometer in a woodshed that contained a partial roll of barbed wire. The wire was a flattened strand with saber pointed flat barbs, a type of barbed wire I had never seen before.

I took a small portion of that wire to the Range Rider’s Museum in Miles City, where an authority on barbed wire informed me that the wire was known by locals as a Brink’s flat wire, but correctly labeled as a Brinkerhoff Opposed Lugs Lance Point, patented April 8, 1879 by Jacob Brinkerhoff. I also learned that common barbed twist types consisted of single twist, double twist, and traditional twist varieties.

Michael Kelly is given credit for the first basic design of barbed wire. In 1868, he twisted two plain wires together, creating a cable for sharpened barbs. Then, in 1874, Joseph Glidden, a farmer from De Kalb, Illinois, attended a county fair and was fascinated by a display of a wooden rail equipped with a short wire with points extending out in short projections. Returning home, Glidden thought of ways to improve on what he had seen. Using a coffee grinder to fashion barbs with the aid of a grindstone, Glidden made improvements to Kelly’s wire by locking a simple wire barb into a double-strand wire, for which he received a patent (number 157124) from the U.S. Patent Office. Other inventors received patents for their own variations of barbed wire design; the U.S. government issued over 500 patents between 1868 and 1874. Glidden’s fence design proved to be cheap, easy to mass produce, and it (as well as numerous other designs) proved to be effective at confining livestock across the vast, treeless expanses of prairie. Nesters and homesteaders finally had a simple, effective tool for marking boundaries and confining animals. Over the following decades, much of the open prairies were divided into parcels marked by barbed wire fencing.

Proving the effectiveness of barbed wire to ranchers in containing livestock took some convincing. The story is frequently told of a barbed wire salesman who was almost laughed out of a San Antonio, Texas saloon as he spread his wire samples across the bar for inspection. Persistently, he talked some residents into agreeing to a test. The following day, with local help, he stretched wire into a makeshift corral in the town square. Better than two dozen of the meanest and toughest longhorns he could round up were driven into the corral by whooping, leg-slapping cowboys. The longhorns, wide-eyed with tails raised, charged the barbed fence, which held. Backing off, licking their wounds, and pawing the ground with their hooves, they charged with a resurgent fury, and the fence still remained standing. Before nightfall, the salesman had more orders than he could fill. It would not be much later when ranchers unspooled countless miles of fencing across the landscape to contain livestock.

The introduction of barbed wire to the open prairie had an adverse impact on changing the history of the West. Plains Native Americans and the bison herds they followed and hunted could no longer move freely across the now-vanishing expanses, and the days of the “open range,” when cowboys drove large herds of longhorns long distances from Texas to distant shipping points, were coming to an end. Cattlemen were not happy with the “Devil’s Rope” or “Bobbed Warr” as it was labeled by cowboys. Horses and cattle, unaccustomed to the sharp barbs, would run headfirst into the fences, causing nasty wounds and infections, or killing themselves. The loss of a valuable horse would make for an unhappy owner. Fence wars started, tempers flared, men were killed, wires were cut, and fenced-in waterholes on rangeland assuredly would not stand long.

The knock-out blow to the open range practice of free roaming livestock came with the severe winter of 1886-1887, labeled “the Great Die Up.” Following a summer of drought in ‘86, raging blizzards started in November and continued through February, with temperatures plunging to -55 F. When spring finally arrived, dead cattle by the thousands were found piled up against fences, stacked up in coulees and river bottoms. The staggering loss of cattle resulted in severe financial hardships and bankruptcy for even the most solvent Montana ranchers. One of the most enduring reminders of that disastrous winter is a watercolor of a starving steer painted by cowboy artist Charlie Russell, who titled it, “Waiting for a Chinook.” Stalked by coyotes, the dying steer portrayed the end of the days of roving cowboys, untamed wilderness, and the open range.

Fans of television’s Lonesome Dove still remember Montana as an open range country, where cowboy Gus McCrae got arrowed by roving Indians after he and Captain Call trailed their herd of semi-wild long-legged longhorns from the Texas-Mexico border to the rich bonanza grasslands of the Montana territory.

Overgrazing, compounded by the brutal winter of 1886-87, and the arrival of the plow with an encroaching wave of homesteaders and other opportunists had a resounding impact on the livestock industry. It altered not only the future development of the West, but also the direction of the development of America’s agricultural movement – an industry which has given us a rich and colorful heritage. Much has changed with ranching and farming operations in the western states since those glory days of the open range. Innovative ranching  and farming programs with new wildlife-fencing designs, rest rotation pastures, livestock stocking rates compatible with range forage usage, consideration of fence placement for migratory wildlife, and numerous other range management changes, enhanced by a growing technological society, coupled with state and federal agriculture research programs, further changed the direction of the livestock industry.

The 1800’s encroachment of civilization in the West also had a dramatic impact on wildlife and its habitat. Unfortunately, no reporters were on the scene during this historical period to report and speculate on the hazards barbed wire presented to big game ungulates and birds, both in injury and death. Many decades would pass before public awareness and corrective actions were taken by state and federal wildlife agencies, ranchers, wildlife organizations, land-grant universities, and environmental foundations.

Fences are essential for controlling livestock and trespass. Countless miles of twisted wiry fences crisscross the American West like strands of spider webs, which equates to a conservative estimate of 600,000+ miles of fencing that could circle the Earth’s equator 24 times. That number is without counting property fencing in cities and suburbs. In some areas, barbed wire fences are mere historic remnants, no longer serving any useful purpose. There are also miles of private and federal fences that were designed and constructed in past years with little consideration about harm to ungulates such as deer, pronghorn, elk, bighorn sheep, and birds, when they collide with or become entangled in fences.

A landmark 2005-06 fence study conducted in Utah and Colorado by Utah State University found that for every 2.5 miles along 1,200 miles of barbed wire fencing, at least one ungulate died per year. This equated to one dead pronghorn per year per 5.6 miles of fence; one dead mule deer every year per 17.8 miles of fence, and one dead elk per year for every 10.3 miles of fence. These mortality numbers are conservative, because researchers defined “death” as an animal physically entrapped  in the fence, which did not account for ungulates with injures that led to death. The same study found that juvenile ungulates are eight times more likely to die in fences than adults, and that 70% of all mortalities occurred on fences with the top strand over 40 inches in height.

In recent years, wildlife biologists have collected field data from numerous studies. Satellite mapping, modeling, designing ungulate-friendly fence crossing modifications, identifying fence locations in areas allowing access to important wildlife habitats, identifying stretches of fences that impede ungulate migratory movements, and studying the movements of GPS-collared animals in reference to fence locations helped unravel some mysteries of fence hazards to wildlife. American Prairie, a nonprofit foundation for preserving a unique area of prairie in northeastern Montana, controls more than 454,000 acres of private and leased land. They have modified miles of fences by replacing the middle barbed wire with an electric wire that helps to deter bison from pushing on the fence or using the fence to scratch itches while shedding coats.

Daunting questions still remain for biologists, such as how barbed wire fences affect the long-term health of wildlife populations, and how different ungulates learn and adjust to wildlife-friendly fences. Another question centers on how our rapidly changing climate and associated mega-fires are changing ungulate migration routes, habitat location, and fragmentation. Barriers, like fences, may physically inhibit the ability of some ungulate species to adapt to climate and ecosystems changes. An ideal friendly-fence modification should meet the following qualifications:

*Allow animals to safely jump over or crawl under a four-strand fence without injury. The top wire should preferably be barbless and 40”or less above the ground, and no more than 42”. The bottom wire should be barbless, a minimum of 16” above the ground, and preferably 18” for pronghorns and juvenile ungulates (deer and elk) to safely crawl under. Since pronghorns had their evolutionary development in grasslands, they are not adept jumpers. When confronted with a vertical fence barrier, they will crawl under it rather than jump over. A barbed lower strand lower than 16” can severely scrape a pronghorn’s back and expose them to infection. Pronghorns are also repetitive in their travels. They  are known to return to the same crossing points yearly, which imprints their young to do the same. This allows ranchers, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S Forest Service and state land agencies to, hopefully, make smart decisions in modifying critical sections of fences, making for a safe crossing. 

*Fences should be highly visible for both ungulates and birds in known wildlife crossing corridors by using brightly colored flagging or other markers attached to wire strands, preventing fence collisions and entanglement. Studies have shown that such measures have reduced bird-fence collisions considerably in high raptor bird flight and sage grouse areas. Sage grouse recently narrowly avoided a listing in the Endangered Species Act. Sage grouse are known to fly low to the ground, and barriers like fences pose a problem to a wildlife species with declining numbers. A 2005-07 survey of 4.7 miles of fencing by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department inspection for mortality kills reported 170 dead birds, with 96% of the birds being sage grouse.

*The biggest danger to jumping animals is getting their back legs trapped between the two top wires, especially if those wires are loose. Fences built on steep incline areas increase the difficulty for deer and elk to jump.
Today, wildlife-fence hazards are well known to Montana ranchers, state and federal wildlife agencies, and wildlife foundations, but corrective steps still are slow to be implemented. Fence removal or modification is expensive, and it is difficult to find funding and volunteers to remove non-serviceable harmful fencing. Despite these limitations, growing public interest in conserving wildlife habitat and migration corridors has put fencing issues into the spotlight. Alliances between ranchers, conservation organizations, and wildlife agencies continue to have a shared vision of protecting the legacy of farming and ranching, preserving open space and wildlife connectivity. Tangible merits are achieved by working together, providing robust solutions. Each mile of fence removal or modification represents a sign of progress. It is important to point out that many ranchers care about wildlife-fencing problems, and corrective measures could not be implemented without their support and appreciation of wildlife values. They represent bonified stewards of the land they manage and its long-term health to wildlife populations.   

Ken Walcheck is a Bozeman resident, and a retired Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Information Wildlife Biologist. He continues to write Montana natural history wildlife articles.

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Ken Walcheck

Ken Walcheck is a Bozeman resident, and a retired Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Information Wildlife Biologist. zHe continues to write Montana natural history wildlife articles.

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