An update on the Desert Fence Busters

by Trica Oshant Hawkins, Conservation Programs Director, Arizona Wildlife Federation

[Excerpted from the Spring 2023 Friends of Ironwood Forest Newsletter]

I’ve been coordinating various volunteer conservation projects for well over 20 years now. In all that time, I can honestly say that the most gratifying work I have ever done (with or without volunteers) is removing old, abandoned barbed-wire fences.

Nothing says “accomplishment” like a wide open landscape you know is safer for wildlife and allows them freedom of movement for migration, foraging, finding mates, predator avoidance, etc. Sharing that satisfaction with a group of volunteers and other like-minded conservationists is, well, exhilarating.

Those “like-minded conservationists” I’m referring to are the Desert Fence Busters, who have collaborated over the past couple of years to make these impactful fence removal projects happen.

Through my work with the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF), I’ve been involved in projects to remove abandoned barbed-wire fence from public lands for several years now. However, working collaboratively with Desert Fence Busters takes this work to a whole other level.

In the past two years with AWF’s Volunteer for Wildlife program, I’ve organized four different projects, through which we’ve removed five miles of fencing. Those projects typically involve myself (representing AWF), a couple of agency partners, and volunteers (usually less than 20 folks per project).

In roughly that same amount of time, through six Desert Fence Busters projects, we’ve removed an estimated 21 miles of fence and taken 15,300 pounds of metal off the landscape to be recycled. Now that’s impact! See what we can do when we collaborate?

For a group of six different non-profit conser-vation organizations, a cadre of volunteers, and county, state, and federal agencies to collaborate and accomplish so much so quickly is nothing short of extraordinary. There is a certain magic with the Desert Fence Busters that one rarely experiences in the conservation field.

Collaborating among different organizations without “turf wars” or power struggles is rare indeed, yet somehow this group simply gets along and gets things done. We’ve come to honor, respect, and learn more about each other’s work and mission, but more than anything, we share the same goal: to help wildlife by getting aban-doned barbed wire off the landscape…to bust fence!

While fences serve many purposes, with both positive and negative effects on wildlife and people, abandoned barbed-wire fencing poses nothing but hazards for animals on the land-scape. Wildlife get entangled in the wire, often resulting in death. Fencing also disrupts the natural movement of wildlife, causing individual stress and population declines.

Many of these fences were installed during the era of intense cattle ranching in the south-west, which coincided with the invention of barbed wire in the late 1870s. To hold on to their public land grazing allotments, ranchers had to show “improvement” on the land. Building fences was (and still is) one of the primary methods of “improving” one’s grazing allotments.

However, there weren’t (and still aren’t) any directives stating that those fences had to be removed once ranchers and their cattle moved on. As land ownership and grazing allotments changed, the relics of the cattle industry remain-ed on the landscape. And they still do to this day.

It is estimated that there are 620,000 miles of fence on private, city, county, state and federal landscapes across the west. But no one really knows how much of that is abandoned barbed-wire fence, also known as “ghost fence.”

We do know it is a significant amount. As an example, in the 776 square miles that make up the Sonoran Desert National Monument (an AWF fence removal project site), it is estimated that there are at least 40 more miles of abandoned fence that needs removing…that we know of. So, there’s a lot of work to be done!

The beauty of the Desert Fence Busters is that we have a variety of agency land managers that identify and map abandoned fence that needs removing from their respective lands. Once a project site is scouted and identified, each of the different non-profit organizations reaches out to their respective database of volunteers, invit-ing them to participate in the project.

Agencies like the Arizona Game and Fish Department provide resources such as tools and fence rollers. Friends of Ironwood Forest sets up an information table and welcomes volunteers. BKW partners load and haul away the dropped fencing and T-posts. All of the groups help in organizing the projects and share costs of providing lunch, snacks, and beverages.

Through the Desert Fence Busters, we are truly making an impact on our beloved Sonoran desert landscape. We are improving the habitat for wildlife… and for people. Together, we are making a difference.

There are some who say the future of conservation is in collaboration. With the Desert Fence Busters, that future is now.

The Desert Fence Busters includes the following partner organizations: Friends of Ironwood Forest, Arizona Wildlife Federation, Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, Arizona Game and Fish Department, BKW, Bureau of Reclamation, City of Tucson, Friend of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Mule Deer Foundation, Pima County, Saguaro National Park, and Tucson Audubon Society.

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