Jeff Boardman, 48, runs a cow-calf and yearling operation on the high plains near Gillette, Wyoming. His ranch lies along the Little Powder River about 25 miles south of Montana. On the eastern horizon, the Black Hills rise from South Dakota.
He took over the century-old ranch in 2015, working the land his father and grandfather managed before him. To keep his prairie healthy, Boardman has partnered with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) on projects that improve soil, water, and wildlife habitat.
Boardman views NRCS staff as “a real asset” for making ranches more productive and profitable. "I ask them questions about grass and land management all the time.”
Eastern Wyoming’s wide-open grasslands offer valuable forage for livestock. This shortgrass prairie also provides food for migrating herds of pronghorn antelope, elk, and mule deer. Unfortunately, deer or antelope sometimes get “twisted up” and die in Boardman’s barbed-wire fences. “I’ve had to fix a lot of broken wires. And I feel bad for the animals, too,” Boardman says.
With help from the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Boardman recently replaced a few of the aging five-strand barbed wire fences with wildlife-friendly designs.
“These new fences are less maintenance,” says Tim Kellogg, NRCS District Conservationist in the Gillette Field Office, who works with Boardman.
According to Kellogg, most producers in the area spend an average of two weeks each spring fixing fences that have been destroyed by wildlife. That maintenance time gets cut down to two days after installing wildlife-friendly fencing. “Everybody who’s built them really likes them. They rave about how well they work.”
Boardman is definitely a fan. Although he thought the wildlife-friendly fence design was “kind of goofy looking at first,” he’s been impressed with how well they hold in his cattle. In fact, Boardman plans to use the same design when replacing more fences on his ranch in the coming year.
As for how wildlife-friendly fences are different from older barbed-wire versions, Kellogg explains: “The top wire is lower at 42 inches, so mule deer can jump over them and not get twisted up. And the bottom wire is higher at 16 inches, so pronghorn barely have to slow down to go underneath them.”
In Wyoming, NRCS offers landowners an incentive payment through EQIP that covers 75% of the estimated cost of installing a new wildlife-friendly fence. This program, launched in 2017, is popular with producers. "Most fences in this area went in in the 1920s and need an upgrade,” explains Kellogg. “We had 16 fence modification applications come in this year in Gillette.”
Taking a cue from the success of projects like Boardman’s, USDA is expanding its investment in replacing old fences to benefit landowners and wildlife alike. In October 2022, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon signed an agreement that committed more Farm Bill dollars to improve wildlife migration corridors as part of the USDA-Wyoming Game Conservation Partnership, an initiative through NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife and the Farm Service Agency.
Kellogg says the goal is to scale up the Wyoming model to other states where migrating wildlife roam across private farms and ranches. “There’s a need to replace old fences west wide, and in the east and southeast, too.”
Boardman agrees wholeheartedly. “It’s more important than ever that wildlife are able to move, especially with droughts and weather getting more extreme.”
In addition to wildlife-friendly fencing, Boardman has tapped into EQIP to plant cover crops, switch to no-till practices, and install stock water tanks and riparian fencing so his cows can use upland pastures.
The suite of conservation practices Boardman has put in place on his ranch not only maximize precious water and protect wildlife but also save him time and money. “We have good feed for livestock and we’re helping bring the ecosystem back in balance,” he says.
To apply or learn more about the USDA-Wyoming Big Game Conservation Partnership, producers should contact NRCS at their local USDA Service Center or the NRCS Wyoming State Office.
Brianna Randall is a freelance writer based in Montana.
Top image courtesy of Shana Marie Duncan.