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Removed Barbed Wire Clears the Way for Wildlife and Wilderness

February 21, 2016

The hike down into remote Eagle Canyon is a steep, slippery affair. There are no trails, just staggered juniper and gullies of loose rocks — and the occasional line of barbed wire fence.  

“It’s amazing to me how these fences were built down some of these scree slopes,” says Craig Terry about the hands who originally strung miles and miles of barbed wire on land that used to be Wagner and Pine Creek Ranches. 

“And now we’re taking them out,” he says.

Terry is a volunteer with the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA). The conservation group runs volunteer work trips every spring and summer throughout the high desert.  

The Hood River retiree and about 10 others are removing some of the last remaining barbed wire from Oregon’s Pine Creek Conservation Area, about two hours northeast of Bend.  

“Pulling fence posts, rolling wire, lugging the steel fence posts up the hill. That’s what the job is all about,” he says.    

Rolls of barbed wire double as hiking poles for volunteers working at Pine Creek Conservation Area.  Jes Burns OPB/EarthFix

Taming the West

For the earliest white settlers, barbed wire help tame the west. It segmented millions of acres of wide-open space for livestock grazing. 

The fence pull work crew camped on a ridge high above the John Day River Valley in Central Oregon.  Jes Burns OPB/EarthFixBut the desert association's  Jefferson Jacobs says often when cows are removed from certain areas to protect the environment, the barbed wire is left behind.  

“It can alter how wildlife move through the landscape. It can exclude them from important things like springs or easy travel routes or predator-free areas,” Jacobs says. “It can actually cause mortality of wildlife with animals getting tangled up in the barbed wire.”  

Sage grouse, raptors, deer, elk, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope can be victims of the fencing.  

Some of the volunteers have witnessed the more gruesome consequences.  

“I’ve been on ONDA trips, one in the Steens, where we came across a big horned sheep that had got its horns tangled in the wire,” says MJ Hare, a retired teacher from La Pine.    

The sheep had been dead for quite some time, probably slowing dying from lack of water and food.  

“It must have been a horrific way to go, and it was definitely a reminder of why the fence needs to go,” she says.  

Conservation groups all over the West — from Washington to Wyoming — have prioritized barbed wire fence removal.  

ONDA volunteers all wear leather gloves and other protective gear while removing about a mile of barbed wire fencing at Pine Creek Conservation Area.  Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

And it’s strenuous work. The volunteers all wear leather gloves to keep from getting gouged as they roll the stiff wire strands.  

“Sometimes we’re… on hillsides so steep that you’re holding onto the fence, so you don’t slide down the hill as you’re taking it down,” Jacobs says. “It’s kind of like sawing the branch between the tree and the branch you’re sitting on. It is incredible.”  

Volunteer Ana Plesia works in admissions at Portland’s Oregon Health and Science University. She grabs the barbed wire and pulls herself up the face of a boulder.  

“Seriously, I think my arms tomorrow are going to fall off,” she laughs.  

Ironically, Plesia says she came on this trip to get a break from work.  

“I work in an office. I deal with people on a regular basis, but I don't do anything physical or in the outdoors,” she says. “I just wanted to come do something physical, no cell phones. Go to bed when it gets dark at 7:30 at night.”  

But sleep is still hours and miles away for the volunteer crew, still working in the bright late summer sun at the bottom of the canyon. The job isn’t done until the hundreds of pounds of dismantled fence are packed out on their backs.  

“I don’t know how I’m going to make it up that hill,” Hare says quietly, as she takes a minute to catch her breath.  

Adding Protections

There are no cows left on Pine Creek Conservation Area, but there is a century’s work of barbed wire fence left behind.  

An Oregon Natural Desert Association volunteer unhooks barbed wire strands from metal posts at Pine Creek Conservation Area.  Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFixThe reserve near the small community of Clarno is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to public lands. The area comprises some of the oldest ranchland in Central Oregon. But in the late 1990s, the Bonneville Power Administration began acquiring the parcels for fish and wildlife habitat. The federal agency needed to protect the area to offset the wildlife habitat flooded when it constructed the John Day Dam on the Columbia River.  

BPA handed the ownership and day-to-day management of Pine Creek over to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. And although it is technically accessible by the public — for things like hunting and visits by school groups — it’s not overtly advertised as such.  

There’s no website. There’s no sign welcoming visitors. And aside from a couple old dirt tracks dating from when cows roamed the shrubby hills, there’s little infrastructure.  

Pine Creek butts up against the Spring Basin Wilderness, which Congress designated in 2009. And in an effort to make that Wilderness more contiguous, the federal government is expected to finalize a land swap in February that will add some Pine Creek land to Spring Basin.  

This includes the robust terrain where the ONDA volunteer crew is working. They know that once the land becomes wilderness, removing the old barbed wire fence becomes more complicated.  

“If this was a wilderness area right now, we’d be using pack horses. As it is… we can hike [the dismantled fencing] up to this jeep trail and use a truck to get it out,” Jacobs says.  

As wilderness, no vehicles will be allowed, making the job more difficult.  

“It’s also a visual aspect too. In wilderness… you’re out in this amazing area. You’re not seeing trash, other major impacts by humans,” he says. “To come up on a fence line makes it seem a little less wild in that respect.”  

Looking over your shoulder

For MJ Hare, Craig Terry and most of the others on the work crew, this isn’t their first barbed wire rodeo.  

“Even when I was teaching… I’d bring my bag with me, change my clothes, hop in the car and be off to one of these trips. It’s been part of my life for quite a while,” Hare says.  

ONDA volunteers have taken down more than 500 miles of fencing in Oregon. About 80 miles came from Pine Creek Conservation Area, and by the end of this intense weekend work trip, that total will rise by another mile.  

ONDA volunteer Joan Wozniak rolls barbed wire on the side of a hill.  Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

ONDA has removed more than 300 miles from Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, which is now officially fence-free.  Terry helped pull much of that fencing. He says unlike deer and elk, antelope won’t jump over fence on the range. Instead they try to squeeze under, cutting open their backs as they do.  

“We were working on a section of fence [at Hart Mountain and] a pair of pronghorns came up,” he recalls.  

He says the antelope looked at the fence, then turned around and left.  

“The next day we took that section out. And I think the same pair came up and they just ran right on through. And that was probably one of the most satisfying things I’ve seen,” he says.  

These volunteers continue to return for the camaraderie and for their love of this stark and open landscape. While the Steens and Hart Mountain are most popular, obscure Pine Creek is Hare’s favorite place. It keeps her coming back year after year.

“It’s the reward of looking over your shoulder as you’re leaving an not seeing any fence; how beautiful that looks so open and free.”      

Rusty barbed wire is hung from an old juniper fence post at Pine Creek Conservation Area.

Jes Burns OPB/EarthFix