A West without barbed wire

A West without barbed wire

Conservation Northwest / May 17, 2022 / Sagelands, Virtual Fencing

Virtual fencing pilot program is breaking down barriers for wildlife in Washington’s shrub-steppe

Three images highlighting the step to virtual fencing

The dream of a fence-less west is underway in central Washington with the rollout of a new virtual fence pilot program. The removal of traditional fencing used for cattle management brings benefits to ranchers, critical wildlife species, and the ecosystem as a whole.

Conservation Northwest is partnering with local ranchers – so far eight have joined the program – to adopt virtual fencing to manage their herds. Along with our partners, we helped install two towers in Okanogan County in April.

“In my 31 years working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help farmers and ranchers improve their operations to benefit wildlife, and now with 13 years doing the same kind of work with Conservation Northwest, I have never seen or could I have ever imagined such game-changing technology as virtual fencing,” said Jay Kehne, Conservation Northwest’s Sagelands Heritage Program Lead. “We now can truly reinvent the way range management occurs that will have a previously unimaginable positive effect on the ability of multiple wildlife species to move safely across the landscape. Ranchers win, habitat connectivity wins, communities win, and the wildlife we all love to see wins.”

Removing these barriers will help wildlife by connecting habitat for easier migration and making it possible for wildlife to move quickly from an area threatened by fire. Sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, pronghorn, mule deer, elk and other species benefit from the removal of barbed wire.

How does it work?

The two towers we installed last month are about 20 feet tall, run on solar power, and provide coverage to more than 60,000 acres of land. There are currently 19 planned towers that will eventually cover more than 700,000 acres in Okanogan, Douglas and Chelan counties. The technology replaces the function of barbed wire fencing, which then can be removed (or not replaced after a wildfire).

A map highlighting the pilot project signal coverage of virtual fencing
The projected tower coverage of the first two virtual fence signal towers located in the Tunk Valley.

Our Sagelands Heritage Program team assisted in getting the first collars on cows. The collars have a GPS tracking system, so the rancher can manage individual cows and also easily change virtual fence lines using an app on their phone or computer.

The ease of moving the fence creates more opportunities for rotational grazing, protection of important riparian areas and waterways, and keeping cattle off fire-impacted land to allow recovery. Cattle can even be easily virtually fenced away from specific wildlife areas, such as pygmy rabbit burrows, grouse leks, and even wolf dens.

According to Vence, the company contracted for the pilot project, cattle learn to avoid virtual fence lines quickly and within 72 hours about 95 percent of the collared cattle will have learned to avoid boundaries.

To deter cattle from crossing the virtual fence, they will hear a beeping noise when coming close to a barrier and will receive a small shock if they cross over. The shock is milder than if the cow were to touch a traditional electrical fence.

Fence lines act as a one-way gate, so cows do not receive the shocking stimulus when returning inside the fence to rejoin the rest of the herd. The lightweight devices also relay real-time data on individual cow locations, giving ranchers the ability to monitor the well-being of the herd as they graze.

Looking forward

While this project is in its early stages, Conservation Northwest staff are helping track its success and troubleshoot any issues as they arise. The first phase of this pilot project is funded by Conservation Northwest, a local rancher, and the Okanogan Conservation District. Additional projects will likely be funded by federal grants and money allocated in the Shrub-steppe Fire Recovery and Preparedness Proviso funded by the Washington Legislature to help restore areas burned by the Cold Springs, Pearl Hill, and Whitney fires.

We are excited about the potential virtual fencing has to help protect, connect, and restore wildlife habitat by making quality livestock stewardship easier and less expensive. We can also better our relationships with local ranchers by partnering in practical ways on the ground while also enabling coexistence with wildlife.

Learn more about our Sagelands Heritage Program on our website


The cost breakdown and benefits of virtual fencing