Trust Our Land: Down with the thorny fence

Torrey Davis
Trust Our Land
Barbed wire can be very dangerous for wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts. Will you help Eagle Valley Land Trust and partners remove it from the Brush Creek Valley Ranch & Open Space on July 22?
Courtesy photo

Take a moment to picture yourself walking across the American West landscape pre-1900. What comes to mind? Cattle drives across an unfettered valley? Sprawling seas of grasses and roaming wildlife?

Now ponder, how have these physical attributes changed? What happened to that vast and open landscape? How did we go from that western landscape to the West we know today?

It’s a complicated and nuanced answer, of course, but a key part of what changed the landscape started with an idea: “two wires, twisted together, with a short transverse wire, coiled or bent at its central portion about one of the wire strands of the twist, with its free ends projecting in opposite directions … ”

The devil’s rope, buckthorn, thorny fence, diamond point, barbed wire. This invention is one that dramatically changed the story of the West. Simply designed, inexpensive, and sturdy enough to withstand the incessant pushing of cattle, barbed wire was originally created to protect farmland from stray animals and to keep livestock contained. There were multiple iterations of the original barbed wire design, but the first official patent went to Joseph Glidden in 1874 in Illinois.

In fact, Glidden was so confident in his invention that he used it to build approximately 120 miles of fence-line and retain several thousand head of cattle within his own ranch in the Texas panhandle, a concept previously unthinkable in the world of the open range. With that kind of marketing, barbed wire had come to stay. It soon became a key component of defining and protecting range rights and property boundaries, and its low-cost installation and effectiveness at controlling cattle movement essentially tamed the West. The days of the free open range were over. 

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Or almost over, at least. The idea of who’s responsible for controlling livestock movement still has present-day policy ramifications. Specifically, in the Colorado Revised Statute sections 35-46-101 et seq., Colorado is a fence-out state, meaning that if you as a landowner want to keep livestock off your property, it is your responsibility to maintain a fence in good repair (sometimes with the help of your neighbor) to keep livestock off.

Otherwise, land can still be considered “open range” in some areas. With most land in the West developed and boundaries mapped in this day and age, however, many previously installed fences are obsolete or have become fences of convenience. Many tons worth of dilapidated barbed wire from these bygone fences still exist on the landscape today, creating hazards for people and wildlife alike, such as elk colliding with fences or deer entangling their legs while trying to jump over a wire.

Now with innovative and technology-oriented ideas like the Eagle County Conservation District’s virtual fence project, currently being tested at the Brush Creek Valley Ranch and Open Space, the question becomes: What purpose does barbed wire serve on our landscapes in 2022? Not that all fencing is obsolete or harmful, of course; fencing can be used to keep cattle out of sensitive riparian and other habitats, and there are ways to install it in a wildlife-friendly fashion that allows animals to jump safely over a smooth top wire or go underneath the fencing. That does beg the question of what to do with all the leftover fencing that’s been around since the 1870s. 

Fortunately, there is an answer. Through The Eagle Valley Land Trust’s Community Land Connection series, we’re partnering with Eagle County Open Space, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, The Nature Conservancy, and others on Friday, July 22, 2022, to remove unnecessary fencing at the Brush Creek Valley Ranch and Open Space. Check out for more information and to reserve your spot at the event. Please reach out to with questions.

Torrey Davis is EVLT’s land steward and can be reached at To learn more about EVLT’s local conservation and restoration work, visit

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