Monday, January 23, 2012

Good Fences

Don't fence me in: so goes the popular 1940's cowboy song. It could also accurately be considered a tenet of conservation today.

Conservationists often view fences as the antithesis of wildness, particularly when it comes to high fences. These fences have come to typify a strategy of national park management in some parts of the world--put a fence around a piece of land, keep people and nature separated. Often, though, that approach seems to reduce parks to the equivalent of zoos.

Last year, I visited Bandhavgarh National Park in India, a famous tiger reserve. Authorities there erected a fence along one border of the park, ostensibly to reduce tiger predation on villagers' cattle.

According to tiger conservationist Satyendra Tiwari, the project was a complete failure: the tigers scaled the fence easily, and continued eating cows. Other wildlife--wolves, spotted deer, porcupines--were blocked off from moving out of the park.

It accomplished nothing and overall harmed wildlife, confirming what most conservationists suspect about fencing.

High fences are also associated with private game ranches, which privatize a public resource. Fences disrupt migration routes. And, well, they look ugly.

And here we come to perhaps what is most disagreeable about high fences: Their aesthetics. They stand for the domestication of what should be wild and free. They mar the landscape. They have no place in pristine nature.

And maybe all of that is true. To a point.

But I'm also struck by points made in Emma Marris' recent book Rambunctious Garden, to my mind one of the most important and insightful conservation books ever published. Marris questions whether any nature can rightfully be called pristine. She then argues that this myth of pristine nature gets in the way of practical solutions.

Sometimes highly managed or engineered nature makes sense for wildlife.

Are there times when a high fence, for instance, actually helps retain wildness?

Highway 21 outside of Boise is a known death trap for mule deer and elk. These animals spend the winter in the Boise foothills. Inevitably they wander onto roads.

Recently, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game installed an underpass for deer and elk to pass under the highway, staying out of harm's way. High fences are used to funnel the animals into the underpass.

Strangely, since the fence has been installed, I've heard repeatedly that it is "ugly." For many people it mars the view and the landscape. It doesn't fit with our foothills aesthetic.

Even official reports on reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions note that many people object to wildlife fencing on aesthetic grounds.

To my mind, the sight of roadkill is far worse. The damage inflicted--on the deer herd, on vehicles and on human safety--makes a fence seem like the most minor of intrusions.

Last week, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation awarded a grant to launch the McArthur Lake Wildlife Safety Project.

McArthur Lake, along Highway 95 between Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry, has the highest rate of wildlife-vehicle collisions in the state. Over the past decade, two people have been killed there in tragic circumstances.

One of the solutions being investigated for the wildlife safety project is fencing along Highway 95, again perhaps altering the view.

But those fences should symbolize balance: they keep wildlife on the move, they make the roadways safer for motorists, they reduce insurance costs.

So fencing has a place in 21st century conservation, perhaps beyond even road safety. As Marris suggests in her book, maybe it's time to recognize that conservationists need to embrace a variety of tools and aesthetics.

Fences around national parks may often be a bad idea, but at times they may be necessary to protect a rare species, or a rare habitat. To buy time.

A high-fenced game ranch may be a way for landowners to bring back, and profit from, native wildlife that has great ecological benefits, like bison on the Great Plains or springbok and other antelopes in southern Africa.

High fencing might even allow for grand conservation experiments, like rewilding. Marris describes this approach being employed to stunning effect in Holland right now, at a place called Oostvaardersplassen. In this park, grazing animals that are the equivalent of Pleistocene herbivores have been reintroduced--including cattle and horse breeds that are similar to extinct ancestors (known as the auroch and tarpan). While this area is now fenced, perhaps it allows for a future where great herds again roam across Europe.

Do good fences make good conservation?

Sometimes, yes.

Clearly that's the case when it keeps deer off the road and on their winter range. Other applications will probably be hotly debated. But in a world with so many people and so many ecological challenges, shouldn't we be experimenting with different conservation techniques and tools as much as possible?

Marris' view of conservation is one of possibility: where different approaches and management techniques contribute to a hopeful vision for the world.

As we shape a future for people and wildlife, maybe the high fence has a place. Maybe it will, paradoxically, become a tool that helps keep our world more wild and more diverse. --Matt Miller

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