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Fencing developed for U of I ranch a win for wildlife and ranchers

By John O’Connell

University of Idaho

While visiting a rancher on the Idaho-Montana border, Wyatt Prescott gleaned the basic idea behind the rangeland fencing design he’s using to better protect wildlife while still enabling cattlemen to save on staff hours and material costs.    

The rancher devised the special fencing to withstand heavy snow loads in areas prone to drifting. Prescott, who contracts to do ranch and infrastructure management at University of Idaho’s Rinker Rock Creek Ranch in the Wood River Valley, made his own tweaks to the design. 

Prescott installed the first section of wildlife-friendly fencing at Rinker Rock Creek Ranch in 2018. The fencing has delivered significant benefits for rangeland management and conservation, furthering the objectives of the unique research ranch.

Rinker is jointly managed by U of I’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the College of Natural Resources. Two nonprofits that aided the university in acquiring the property, The Nature Conservancy and Wood River Land Trust, serve on an advisory board that provides management direction.

“I’m a big fan of it,” Prescott said of the special fencing. “It seems like I’m talking about it all of the time.”

Rinker Rock Creek Ranch’s highly touted design is a three-strand, high-tensile wire fence that can be laid on the ground when not in use, which avoids wear and tear in addition to removing an obstacle for wildlife.

The wires are electrified when cattle are present. 

“In seasons when animals are moving through the property – the spring and fall migrations – we typically have the fence already laid down,” said Cameron Weskamp, operations manager at Rinker.

The wood or metal fence posts that support wildlife-friendly fencing are spaced about 100 feet apart, versus 15 feet apart for conventional barbed-wire or woven-wire fences.

Hollow post tops are covered with spray foam to prevent songbirds from flying inside of them and getting trapped.

Prescott estimates he spends about half the usual cost on materials for wildlife-friendly fencing. It takes him about an hour to pin up each mile of wildlife-friendly fencing before cattle return each spring. 

“I can’t fix brand-new barbed wire at a mile per hour, and we have fewer cattle getting out than I do with the four-strand barbed wire,” Prescott said. 

The land now encompassed by Rinker Rock Creek Ranch was historically homesteaded by several different families and divided into various pastures using barbed wire. The ranch is also situated within a north-south wildlife migration corridor. 

“Four- or five-strand barbed wire and woven wire can really inhibit elk deer, and pronghorn migration,” Weskamp said. “By installing wildlife friendly fencing and removing barbed and woven wire fencing, we’re making the landscape much more permeable for migrating animals.” 

For the initial installation, the Governor’s Office of Species Conservation provided the ranch a $19,000 grant to remove 7.5 miles of barbed- and woven-wire fencing and put up 4 miles of wildlife-friendly fencing.

Ranch officials consulted with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game on design modifications.

They’ve gradually expanded their network of wildlife-friendly fencing throughout the years, most recently in 2020 and 2021 with $100,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Prescott said the surrounding ranchers were initially skeptical of the concept, but several have been won over. Some of them have even had him install it on their property.

Prescott has installed about 20 miles of wildlife friendly fencing during the past few years at Rinker Rock Creek Ranch and on some surrounding ranches. He estimates about a dozen ranchers come to check out the fencing each year. 

“Every mile gets better. I feel like we’ve got it dialed in,” Prescott said. “Everybody I talk to is really happy with it.”

Dusty Perkins, land stewardship manager with The Nature Conservancy in Boise, recently advised a rancher who was interested in updating his fencing to check out Rinker Rock Creek Ranch’s design.

Accommodating the seasonal migrations of ungulates and other wildlife is a growing priority among conservationists, Perkins said.

“I think this fencing is a good demonstration of how we can meet the management needs and objectives and also we’re meeting some conservation goals,” Perkins said. “The design that U of I is using is an elegant solution. I look at the work at Rinker Rock Creek as a demonstration. I’m excited because we have a place we can point to and say, ‘Look, they’re doing it.’”