Native Americans called barbed wire “devil’s rope” because of the slow and painful manner with which it entrapped and killed bison.
Ranchers pronounced it “stronger than steel and cheaper than dirt” and began installing it rapidly, splitting the open range of the American West into smaller, private sections which efficiently kept cattle under the control of the rancher. Eliminating cattle “drift” with barbed wire fencing largely eliminated the need for cowboys, changing the face of the American West forever.
During the winters of 1885 and 1886, severe winter weather caused the “Big Die-Up” (a dark reference to the term” round-up”), during which hundreds of thousands of cattle perished. As animals moved south, lengths of barbed wire prevented them from reaching safer grazing areas.In Texas alone, thousands of cattle perished as they tried to move south from the Panhandle, either becoming entangled in the fence or by being exposed to temperatures as low as -50 degrees.
“That deadly winter had changed cattle country,” as reported by the Rocky Mountain Husbandman newspaper. “Range husbandry is over, is ruined, destroyed, and it may have been by the insatiable greed of its followers.”
As barbed wire began winding its way through the American landscape, wildlife began dying in, on and around it.
A 2005 Utah State University study of ungulate migration across Colorado and Utah found that fawns and elk calves died in fences 8 times more frequently than adults. Others died of starvation or predation when they were unable to cross fences and became separated from their mothers.
The study revealed that each year an average mule deer encountered fences 119 times and pronghorn 248 times. In about 40% of those encounters, the fence changed the animal’s behavior in a detrimental way, including increasing wildlife-vehicle collisions.
The use of wildlife-safe fencing is now the practice of many parks and open space agencies. Jefferson County Open Space and Denver Mountain Park facilities now usewildlife-friendly fencing, designed to allow fawns and elk calvesto fit under the bottom strands. Larger ungulates, like deer and elk, are able to jump over the fence without injury.
However, barbed wire fencing is still installed by the states’ Departments of Transportation along state and federal highways.
Jeff Peterson, Wildlife Program Manager with Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), states, “CDOT uses a standard 5 strand barbed wire fence on most of their projects.” However, if the landowner requests a wildlife-friendly fence, CDOT will use the recommended design provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Wildlife-friendly fencing will be recommended as mitigation where pronghorn are the primary concern, with structural crossings and exclusionary fencing recommended for deer and elk.”
Peterson said, “When Threatened and Endangered Species are involved, we will often mark the top strand with plastic paddles or other marks so the birds like the sage grouse will see the line and fly over it.”
It’s likely that the U.S. will never be emptied of barbed wire. One estimate suggested there are over 600,000 miles of barbed wire in the U.S., some of which is “ghost” fencing which continues to trap wildlife even when it is no longer used for containing cattle.
Barbed wire fencing can be replaced or removed. Contact Colorado Parks and Wildlife to learn about barbed wire removal programs and choosing animal-safe fencing: