Fence frustration

Fencing along highways not allowing young wildlife to cross safely

The lure of wider roads and better visibility often attract more traffic, which may lead to unforeseen problems when the road interrupts wildlife movement, such as this stretch of Colorado Highway 13 north of Rifle. The new fences along the highway both keep elk off the road and yet trap the elk when they manage to cross one fence and not the other.

Woven wire fences with double strands of barbed wire are particularly dangerous to pronghorn and other big-game animals. The woven wire prevents the animals from slipping underneath and the legs can get snared by the top wires.


Some facts about fencing

Researchers at Utah State University recently completed a study of wildlife mortality along more than 600 miles of fences in the rangelands of northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado (Harrington 2005, Harrington and Conover 2006).

By repeatedly driving and walking fence lines over two seasons, researchers tallied the number of mule deer, pronghorn and elk carcasses they found caught in fences and lying next to fences. They also studied which fence types caused the most problems.

Here are their key findings:

■ On average, one ungulate per year was found tangled for every 2.5 miles of fence.

■ Most animals (69 percent of juveniles and 77 percent of adults) died by getting caught in the top two wires while trying to jump a fence.

■ Juveniles are eight times more likely to die in fences than adults.

■ Mortalities peaked during August, when fawns are weaned.

■ Woven-wire fence topped with a single strand of barbed-wire was the most lethal fence type; ungulate’s legs are easily snared and tangled between the barbed-wire and rigid woven-wire.

■ 70 percent of all mortalities were on fences higher than 40 inches.

■ On average, one ungulate was found dead next to, but not in fences, every 1.2 miles of fence; most were found next to woven-wire fence.

■ 90 percent of carcasses found near fences were fawns, separated from their mothers and unable to cross.

— Courtesy, Colorado Parks and Wildlife

On a morning in early July, motorists along Colorado Highway 13 north of Rio Blanco saw what’s become a familiar sight. A herd of cow elk, fresh from calving grounds in the Piceance Basin to the west, was crossing the highway on its way to summer range to the east.

This time, however, it was different.

Two cow elk had made it across the fence lining the west side of the newly rebuilt section of highway, but they had left behind their two, month-old calves.

Motorists speeding along Colorado 13 saw the predicament: ­The calves simply were too small to jump the tight-strung, woven-wire fence, and with no openings in the fence, the two were running back and forth as their mothers urged them to follow.

You can guess the rest.

“The problem we face every year around the Fourth of July, give or take a few days, is a bunch of cows with their young elk calves move down from the calving grounds, hit that woven-wire fence, and the calves can’t get across,” said Bill deVergie, Meeker area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “We received six, eight, 10, 12 calls about those two calves.”

DeVergie said it wasn’t long before both cows, who refused to leave their calves, had been killed by traffic.

“The two calves were still nursing, and there wasn’t another cow to pick them up, so I don’t know what happened to them,” he said. “I guess they died, too.”

That particular trouble spot is just north of Rio Blanco, where the Colorado Department of Transportation is continuing its improvements to Colorado 13 from the Wyoming line south.

A 2.6-mile stretch of road starting about 20 miles north of Rifle now is being worked on, and part of the work involves replacing the aged fence along the road.

Fences, either woven-wire with two overtopping strands of barbed wire, or a regular four-strand barbed-wire fence, are being replaced at the request of the adjacent landowner, deVergie said.

CDOT often builds escape ramps along similar trouble spots across western Colorado, such as the stretch of Colorado 13 just north of the current work and the much-used ramps near Ridgway State Park.

So far, no ramps have been built along the newest section of Colorado 13.

In this case, the rancher wanted woven wire because of his sheep, and he cooperated with Parks and Wildlife by leaving his gate open to allow elk passage.

“But the property owner below his (property) doesn’t open his gates, so we run into these little places where the elk don’t cross,” deVergie said. “If we could make a deal with that landowner, we could alleviate maybe 80 percent of our problems.”

Rob Raley of Meeker regularly drives Colorado 13 and recently said, “Every day I see those elk, and part of the cows are leaving and the calves are staying. This morning there was a yearling (cow) and calf running back and forth. It’s just a mess.”

This particular problem has developed in the four or so years since workers began installing the new fences that do a better job of stopping animal movement.

The new fences are tight, and though they’re not higher than the old ones, they simply don’t have the “give” of the old fences.

“You’ll see a cow (elk) walk up to the new fence, hit it with its head or rub against it to see if it has any give, and then take two or three steps back and jump over the fence real easy,” deVergie said. “A month-old calf can’t do that.”

Elk need the cooperation of Parks and Wildlife, CDOT and landowners on both sides of the highway, said Raley, who formerly raised elk on a ranch near Yampa.

“The problem of leaving gates open on only one side of the fence is that instead of letting them go in a straight line, the elk (cross the road and) hit the fences on the other,” Raley said. “Once they go through the gate and hit the other fence, they don’t know which way to go and have to figure out the rest of the maze.”

Without an escape route, animals are trapped between the fence and high-speed traffic.

Once the elk have moved through to their summer range, the problem has passed for another year. In the fall, the calves are big enough to jump the fence.

DeVergie said with more work planned for Colorado 13, the goal is figure out how to prevent similar problems from occurring elsewhere.

“We are communicating a lot better with CDOT now than back three or four years ago,” when an adjacent section of Colorado 13 was rebuilt, deVergie said. “But we’re having the same problem every year since they built that fence, and my first concern is of safety for people. If we can save an elk or two, that’s even better.”


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