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Crazy Mountain Virtual Fence Project

Pioneering ranching technology will improve wildlife habitat by enabling the removal of miles of internal barbed-wire fence


Helping a rancher launch an innovative virtual fence project for wildlife

PERC is partnering with Montana’s McFarland White Ranch to help implement an innovative virtual fence project for cattle, a cutting-edge technology that could revolutionize both ranching and wildlife conservation.

The project will initially remove 16 of the ranch’s 75 miles of internal barbed-wire fencing and replace it with a virtual fence network that allows the rancher to remotely map and manage livestock through a series of signal towers and GPS collars worn by cows. Barbed-wire fences are a key barrier to wildlife migration throughout the West. While other pilot projects and implementations are underway, this is the first to explicitly evaluate the technology for both migratory wildlife conservation and its effect on production agriculture—specifically, economic impact, range, and livestock benefits.

Under the agreement, PERC is funding key infrastructure to implement the virtual fence and clear a path for wildlife migration, including directly purchasing one of six signal towers needed to establish a signal across the virtual network.

© Louise Johns

“With hundreds of thousands of miles of barbed wire fragmenting landscapes throughout the West, it’s hard to understate how transformative this project could be for wildlife. Virtual fence technology can help conserve open landscapes and protect wildlife migration. By eliminating the need to constantly maintain fencing, it promises to save significant time and money while offering greater flexibility, a key incentive for ranchers to adopt the approach.”

— Brian Yablonski, PERC CEO


Fences are trouble for wildlife and ranchers

Located at the doorstep of Montana’s Crazy Mountains, the McFarland White Ranch is home to 2,000 head of cattle, rough landscapes, and abundant wildlife. Thirty-two bird species of concern including Clark’s nutcracker, ferruginous hawk, thick-billed longspur, bobolink, sharp-tailed grouse, and sandhill cranes are found on the Audubon-certified ranch. Migratory wildlife including elk, deer, and pronghorn are also common, as well as predators such as wolves, mountain lions, and black bears.

Wildlife including elk and pronghorn can get caught in traditional fences, birds often fatally collide with wires, and ecologically sensitive areas are difficult to fence off with any degree of flexibility.

Repairing barbed-wire fencing is a constant worry for ranchers as well.

© Louise Johns

“Traditional range and animal management has included inflicting our collective will on the landscape via an instrument that is 150 years old. We are excited to be on the edge of a new paradigm. We look forward to studying the ecological and economic impacts on production agriculture as we transition from traditional to virtual fencing.”

– Lanie White, McFarland White Ranch and Great Alone Cattle Company


How virtual fencing works:

  • Cattle are equipped with a GPS collar that emits a sound when the livestock approaches a virtual boundary, then a light shock if the animal crosses the boundary, which continues for several yards, effectively deterring cattle from entering the areas that the rancher has fenced off. Cattle need only a few days to learn that the sound from the collars means it is time to turn around.
  • Solar-powered signal towers connect across the virtual network. Each solar-powered tower covers roughly 10,000 acres of range, depending on topography, and costs approximately $12,000.
  • An app tracks the cattle’s location and sends alerts if the cattle attempt to leave the virtual fence boundary. The rancher can also adjust the boundaries directly from the app.
  • External fencing will be maintained to prevent commingling with neighboring herds and comply with Montana law.
© Louise Johns
Lanie White, and her brother, Harrison White, manage the ranch’s operations. © Louise Johns

Benefits for ranchers:

Virtual fencing significantly reduces the need for traditional barbed-wire fences, bringing notable benefits:

  • The virtual system allows for easily customizable boundaries.
  • Ranchers can more easily track the location and status of their cattle, helping with predator control and herd management.
  • Removing bared-wire fences, which require costly and time-intensive repairs, can save ranchers considerable time and money.

Benefits for conservation:

Traditional barbed wire presents a challenge for wildlife, whose migration depends on unobstructed and expansive landscapes.

  • Open migration: Migrating wildlife can become fatally entangled with traditional fencing. Fences also serve as barriers that prevent wildlife from accessing habitat and reduce their winter range. Removing this barrier makes migration easier and safer.
  • Ecological sensitivity: In addition to allowing wildlife to freely migrate, virtual fencing can also make invasive species management easier by enabling ranchers to easily “fence off” areas where invasive species need to be treated or keep animals out of areas with noxious weeds like tall larkspur, which can be fatal to livestock.
  • Habitat restoration: Likewise, it can facilitate landscape restoration by protecting sensitive ecosystems such as wetlands, riverbanks, and streams.
© Louise Johns

project partners

The McFarland White Ranch is a three-generation family cattle operation located in the rugged landscape of Twodot, Montana
Closeup of a bear in winter.

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