Don’t Fence Me In

“The 2020 analysis found that fences affect ecosystems on every scale, from decreasing insect abundance, because they give spiders ample places to build their webs, to impeding the long-distance migration of everything from wildebeests to mule deer. By concentrating animals more closely together than they might be in the wild, fences could increase disease transmission, an issue that has not received much attention. That could be especially important now as Covid and chronic wasting disease spread rapidly among wildlife populations.”

                                                ~Jim Robbins

Some of my best childhood memories are about when dad used to take us hunting or fishing on various ranch properties owned by his law clients. The country in northwest central Texas is mostly rough plains crossed by arroyos and broken hills, many of which were thick with mesquite. Grasslands were interspersed with sage, rabbitbrush, cactus and juniper — and barbed wire fences separated the pastures.

We often had to cross those fences, which required a learned skill. Rotten posts or slippery wire made the big straddle to climb over the menacing barbs an exciting challenge. (As a teenage boy, the risk of straddling a barbed wire fence seemed very high, indeed.) Sometimes, if the fencing was loose, one of us could hold up a couple of the wires while the others crouched to slide through. Snags were common, and the state of our hunting clothes reflected the tenacity of the barbs. Crossing by yourself without help was dangerous and holding on to a fishing pole or shotgun in the process made it even more so.

Growing up in Texas, we were indoctrinated early to the fact that barbed wire (colloquially known as “bobbed wire” or “bob wire”) was the wire that tamed the west. Without barbed wire, there would have been no large scale ranching or need for cowboys. The open range was a cultural icon across the west, and attempts to fence it were the cause of range wars and subsequent legislation. Wikipedia notes, “Within 2 years, nearly all of the open range had been fenced in under private ownership. For this reason, some historians have dated the end of the Old West era of American history to the invention and subsequent proliferation of barbed wire.”

The movies and TV shows of my childhood were drenched in the tales of the cowboys, western ranches and battles for open range. Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers imbedded the concept in our childhood brains:

“Just turn me loose, let me straddle my old saddle

Underneath the western skies.

On my cayuse, let me wander over yonder

Till I see the mountains rise”

“Oh give me land, lots of land, and the starry skies above,

Don’t fence me in.

Let me ride through the wide open country that I love,

Don’t fence me in.”

Fences, however, didn’t just prevent the movement of cattle, sheep or teenage boys, but hindered the movement of much wildlife. Writer Jim Robbins notes, “Recent research shows that these impacts extend far beyond blocking animal migration routes and include furthering disease transmission by concentrating animals, altering the hunting practices of predators, and impeding access to key areas of water and forage. Fences may also prevent “genetic rescue” if an isolated population is decimated by disease or a natural disaster … fences are going up because the people building them have to be able to manage their livestock, often their most valuable asset, and keep animals away from their crops. That’s why fence ecology is intertwined with social and cultural issues.”

Fences and walls have been used for centuries to control animals and humans. From the Great Wall of China to the Berlin Wall to Trump’s Mexican border wall they have disrupted nature and humankind. Jim Robbins continues, “Better understanding the role that fences play in ecosystems can often lead to simple fixes by figuring out which ones can be removed or modified and then doing such things as raising the height of the bottom strand to allow animals to pass under or lowering the top wire to allow them to jump over.” As we’ve seen recently, human ingenuity has been successful in overcoming such barriers, but the damage to nature continues.

Robbins quotes wildlife ecologist Alex McInturff, “As they (barriers) are built at an accelerating pace around the world, ecosystem collapses are likely to follow.”

“I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences,

Gaze at the moon till I lose my senses,

And I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences.

Don’t fence me in.”

Additional information:

Cole Porter, Don’t Fence Me In, sung by The Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers

Jim Robbins, Unnatural Barriers: How the Boom in Fences Is Harming Wildlife, March 17, 2022, Yale E360 

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