This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
GYPSUM — Kristy Wallner strolls from her flatbed pickup along a waist-high wire fence strung between eight-foot posts. On one side, the mountaintop grass is thick and high, dotted with blue aster. On the other, the grass is much shorter, with clumps of green Indian ricegrass.
Which side is grazed by cows and which side is sheep? Wallner asks the Bureau of Land Management’s Colorado Northwest Resource Advisory Council gathered in the meadow overlooking the Colorado River. And why are these fence posts so high? And when do you think these meadows were grazed?
Wallner last year captained heavy machinery to mow down about 50 acres of pinyon and juniper near the area to encourage better soil health. The area was frost seeded by a plane in March, with the aircraft broadcasting legume and grass seed just in time for the freeze-thaw cycle.
The high fence posts are remnants of a misguided plan from decades ago, when the BLM strung many miles of double-stacked fencing to corral wildlife. That plan didn’t work, and the BLM and Rocky Mountain Youth Corps have been methodically dismantling the fence, which runs more than 14 miles.
It’s all part of a landscape-scale project to improve rangeland health in the BLM’s multi-use 1.85 million-acre Upper Colorado River District. There’s one of the world’s top gypsum mines down Trail Gulch Road near the pasture. There’s a shooting range down there, too, and a motocross park. Pilots from the High Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site — or HAATS — often train in the airspace above the zone.
It’s a pretty diverse piece of public land. It’s also a testing ground for cutting-edge technology and land management practices that are repairing neglected rangeland.
High in the hills, above that wire fence, is a small, camo-painted tower with an antenna that communicates with local cell towers. There are nine more of those antennas on mountaintops in Eagle and Garfield counties. The towers broadcast a virtual fence technology that is helping the BLM improve rangeland while giving shepherds and ranchers unprecedented control of their livestock.
“How can we manage livestock without structure? Now there are endless possibilities. You can sit on your screen, figure out where you want to send your animals, how long you want them there and how you are going to move your animals across the landscape,” says Hilary Boyd, assistant field manager in the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office. “It just gives us so much more flexibility.”
Funded in part by a Conservation Innovation Grant from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, programs for both wildlife and rangeland at the BLM and Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Habitat Partnership Program, the first-ever virtual fencing program has grown from one rancher with about 135 cows to more than 2,000 cows in its first two years. There are 10 towers in Eagle and Garfield counties pinging virtual fences that span 500,000 acres. More are coming.
For land managers and ranchers who rest and rotate pastures — leaving them ungrazed for consecutive seasons to allow native grasses to flourish — virtual fencing “is how you create more grass,” says Pat Luark, who has grazed his family’s cattle on public lands near his ranch above Burns for more than 60 years.
A few years ago Luark joined Wallner in mowing down juniper that covered 96% of about 280 acres of public land where he grazes cattle near his family’s property. They seeded the acreage and strategically located cattle on the freshly seeded land using virtual fencing, allowing the animals’ cloven hooves to aerate and stomp the seeds into the ground. Then they let those seeds grow.
“It’s waving grass almost waist-high up there now,” says Luark, noting that the pasture is now 48% covered in grass. “We can stop erosion, cut out weeds and we can curb our carbon problems if we manage this grass and range right with rest and rotation. It’s amazing how resilient this ground is. The most sustainable thing agriculture can do is raise more grass. All our problems will start to fade away as we grow more grass on public land. Virtual fencing is an important tool to do that.”
After another season of rest for the pasture above the Colorado River, Wallner says a rancher plans to use water harvested and collected in a small pond and a virtual fence to turn the high mountain meadow into rangeland. The rancher and BLM soon will sprinkle fresh seed on the pasture and the cows’ hooves will churn the dirt. Not only will the grassy pastures offer more robust grazing, but they serve as fire breaks between the thick forests of pinyon and juniper, Wallner says.
“This is the kind of exciting management that is coming up that you could never do without a virtual fence,” Wallner says.
It takes a bit for the cows to figure out how the virtual fences work. The collars — offered by virtual fence company Vence — work like a dog shock collar. They vibrate and emit beeps and tones as cows near borders. Ideally the cows learn to turn away when they feel that buzz or hear that beep. If they keep going they get a zap.
Typically ranchers spend a few weeks teaching their cows how to respond to the buzzing, beeping and zapping. After the animals figure out the system, they are moved onto the range.
The younger cows who are venturing into rangeland for the first time learn quickly. The older cows that have been to a particular area before are harder to train.
“We are finding that the old cows who know where to go, they kind of break the rules,” Wallner says. “They are the violators who can untrain the herd.”
The BLM spends about $8,100 to $10,000 to build the solar-powered, camo-painted towers on its managed land. Each tower has a guaranteed range of 12 miles but often can bounce fencing signals 20 miles or more.
Wallner says her office looks at the towers as infrastructure investment in rangeland land and wildlife habitat improvements.
“We see a lot of benefits to going virtual,” says Wallner, noting how the agency spends less on maintenance on cattle guards and doesn’t have to worry about recreational users leaving gates open. “We have less materials to buy. We pay less for labor. It helps wildlife. We don’t need dozers to build fence lines. We don’t need (lengthy environmental study through) NEPA for new fences.”
The virtual fence has shifted the tone of conversations with grazing ranchers. She talks with them about the quality of grasses and where to shift fences “instead of just being a range cop,” she says.
Ranchers are finding the collars extraordinarily helpful when it comes to finding wayward livestock. The system can alert ranchers when their cows don’t move and several have been able to rescue stranded animals after receiving distress signals from collars.
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The ranchers are hearing about the new technology and its benefits and they are approaching the BLM. The agency has 23 grazing allotments — which are a series of pastures it leases to ranchers — spanning more than 200,000 acres in Eagle and Garfield counties.
That’s a very good sign that ranchers are recognizing the value of the virtual fencing technology and coming to the BLM, said Doug Vilsack, the agency’s new Colorado state director.
“It’s great to see so many early adopters,” he says. “For somebody whose family has been out here ranching for 100 years or longer and they suddenly can see where all their livestock are on their phone, what an opportunity.”
“It was kind of like Jurassic Park”
What happens when a tower goes down, which is not uncommon for cellular systems?
That happened recently with a rancher in the district who lost the virtual fence signal for his bull pasture and the bulls scattered.
“It was kind of like Jurassic Park,” Wallner says, describing a motorbike mission to round up the wandering bulls.
Wallner spent 10 years with the BLM before she ever worked with the NRCS or the Forest Service. Now she’s working with both agencies and more private landowners, thanks to virtual fences.
“It’s making all these agencies work together pulling in one direction,” she says. “We are producing grass and rotating through rangelands and having fun in a drought. Imagine when we get a good year, what things are going to look like.”
As more ranchers sign up for virtual fencing and the Forest Service weighs the technology for its public land open for grazing, the number of collared cows on public land seems poised for even more growth. Sheep herders also are looking to the buzzing collars as tools to manage flocks.
“When we can have healthy rangeland and create better forage for our wildlife and offer better conditions to our permittees, there is so much potential,” says Boyd, a former wildlife biologist with the BLM who now serves as assistant field manager in the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office. “We are on the cusp of some really amazing stuff.”
Luark says his ranching neighbors are coming by to ask about the waves of golden grass replacing dense juniper on his permitted allotments.
“This is the future of agriculture if it’s going to stay in western Colorado. If we don’t do this, we are screwed,” Luark says. “There are a multitude of benefits that can come from virtual fencing. I’ve lived here for 64 years and now that I’m older and getting into this reclaiming of land, I’ve never been more excited.”