As he hitched up his black 101st Airborne Division ball cap, Karl Lankford leaned against a freshly planted fence post and admired the shiny barbless wire lining his land at the base of Sheep Mountain in northwestern Wyoming.
"We coulda used barbed wire for the middle two wires," Lankford said, pointing to the four-wire fence. "But gol' dang, I just don't need it for my cows."
Lankford's new fence was installed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Habitat and Access Branch as part of an initiative to provide wildlife a safer path through private lands, Wyoming Game and Fish Senior Game Warden Bill Brinegar said.
"We found out he was maintaining a fence we should have been helping maintain," Brinegar said. "When he told us about some of the issues he was having with wildlife getting tangled trying to access a stream on the other side and his plans to move the fence himself, it just seemed like the right thing to do."
Because Lankford's land borders the Forbes/Sheep Mountain Wildlife Habitat Management Area, Brinegar said game and fish was partly responsible for the fence but decided to pay for the project in full as part of an effort to build relationships with landowners and showcase how fences could be made wildlife friendly.
"This is my pride and joy — this fence here," Lankford said as his lips curled into a broad smile beneath his long, gray handlebar mustache. "This will mean 20 or 30 more elk, deer and antelope the people of Wyoming will have to enjoy."
Researchers at the University of Utah recently determined an average of one hoofed animal for every 2.5 miles of fence died annually from getting tangled in fence and an average one was found dead near a fence annually for every 1.2 miles of fence in Utah and Colorado, Wyoming Wildlife Foundation documents state.
"The main thing is it's a barrier to wildlife movement," Brinegar said. "Wildlife need more movement space to survive."
Many of the problems with traditional fences occur during the winter or after a hard spring, he said.
"In the winter when antelope are already fatigued, they will stack up against a fence if they can't find a spot to crawl under," Brinegar said. "If no one comes along and lets them through, they will literally just stand there and die."
When the fences are too high or the wires too close, he said deer, which prefer to jump over fencing, get tangled in the wire and often die from their injuries.
"Fences that are in a bad location can be detrimental to sage grouse, too," Brinegar said.
Combating the problem is costly for ranchers, but he said grants were available to help private landowners pay the cost of installing wildlife-friendly fence.
"The absolute best is three-wire (fence)," Brinegar said. "But you can do it with four-wire."
Depending on the purpose of the enclosure, lay-down fencing could be an option, he said. Another solution could be moveable power fence or adjusting the height and spacing of the landowner's current fence.
No matter the solution, Brinegar said he hoped to use Lankford's fence as a showcase for one of the many possibilities available to landowners willing to work with Game and Fish.
"One of the most important roles as a game warden is we are basically a liaison between the public and the 'department,'" he said. "If you build that trust between the game warden and the landowner, then maybe when they have a problem with elk tearing stuff up, they will with work us on an access program."
In many cases, he said landowners are more than happy to cooperate with game wardens in wildlife preservation efforts, because the landowners take care of the wildlife as if they were their own pets or livestock. However, getting out the word about federal grants for land improvements can prove to be a barrier in its own right, he said.
"One of my long-term career goals is to get as many miles of wildlife-friendly fence as possible," Brinegar said.
A red dachshund sauntered between Lankford's feet and paused beneath the newly installed wires as if to admire the craftsmanship.
"That's Jade — she's after gophers," Lankford said. "She's the huntin'ist dog you've ever met."
Returning his attention to the fence, the Vietnam veteran bent over inspecting several staples holding the wire in place and patted a post affectionately.
"If you look at the way they spaced this wire, there's no way a cow will get through this," he said. "It's a really neat thing for me. I'm just so appreciative of what they done. This will save so many elk."