Getting rid of barbed wire

There are no cattle left on the Pine Creek Conservation Area in Central Oregon. But there’s plenty of barbed wire fence. Now, a group of back country volunteers are determined to remove the dangerous, derelict fencing from the area before it becomes federally protected wilderness.


There are no cattle left on the Pine Creek Conservation Area in Central Oregon.

But there's plenty of barbed-wire fence.

Now a group of Backcountry volunteers are determined to remove the dangerous, derelict fencing from the area before it becomes federally protected wilderness.

Here's the story.

[ Birds chirping ]

Early mornings are quiet in the High Desert.

Unseen birds are sparing with their calls.

A silent rabbit chances breakfast in the tall, dry grass.

As the desert wakes up, so does the camp on Hedgehog Ridge, high above the John Day River Valley.

One by one, volunteers with the Oregon Natural Desert Association, or ONDA, emerge from their tents and greet the morning with strong coffee and small words.

Hard to fix...

They begin preparing for a day of backcountry and barbed wire.


And before the sun rises too high, the group heads out.

I can cut only from the other end.

I'm Fred Sawyer.

Yesterday was my birthday.

I was 66 years old.

And, so, on my birthday, I got to come out on this ONDA trip and four-wheel-drive up here to Pine Creek Conservation Area.

We're pulling fence.

Pulling fence posts, rolling wire, lugging the steel posts that are up the hills to get them to where we can get them out with a vehicle on the edge of the wilderness area.

And that's what the whole job is about.


Barbed-wire fencing has been on this land since the late 1800s, soon after the first white settlers began putting down roots in Central and Eastern Oregon.

Volunteers, like retired La Pine science teacher M.J. Hare, are giving up one of the final weekends of summer to help pull some of the last remaining fence off this land.

Even when I was teaching, I would bring my bags with me and run out and change my clothes and hop in the car and off I'd go to one of these trips.

So it's been part of my life for quite a while.

Jefferson Jacobs is leading the trip.

There is so much landscape out here that is not in its entire natural state.

It just needs a little nudge to get on a different trajectory.

Fencing can be a good thing, keeping grazing animals out of sensitive environments, but when barbed wire becomes obsolete and is left out on the range, it can create serious problems for wildlife.

Removing unneeded fence from Pine Creek and other protected areas, like Hart Mountain and the Steens in Oregon, has long been a conservation priority.

It can alter how wildlife move through the landscape and can exclude them from important things, like springs or easy travel routes or predator-free areas.

The group's volunteers have pulled and hauled more than 500 miles of obsolete fencing across the state.

Other conservation groups from Washington to Wyoming have undertaken similar work.

And some of the volunteers have witnessed the more gruesome consequence of old fencing.

We came across a big-horned sheep that had got its horns tangled in the wire.

I mean, it was long past.

But, still, it must have been a horrific way to go.

And it was definitely a reminder of why the fence needs to go.

The group has taken down fence in this area before.

In the past, they were able to remove about a mile of it per day, but not on this trip.

This fence is kind of left for last, 'cause it is a hard, hard fence.

It runs deep in a canyon, down scree slopes and along rocky ledges.

Watch your step here.

Every pulled post and barbed-wire roll is packed out of the canyon.

And by the end of the day, the group is exhausted.

Today was a little bit on the brutal side.

We were on a side of a hill.

It got hot today.

[ Laughs ] It's the steepest place I've ever removed fence.

This is the hardest fence pull we have ever done.

I don't think anybody up there would say otherwise.

But there's a quarter mile less fence on Pine Creek.

With the shared exhaustion comes the camaraderie of shared experiences and a feeling of ownership, responsibility, and affinity for this small corner of Central Oregon.

It's the reward of looking over your shoulder as you're leaving and not seeing any fence and how beautiful that looks -- just open and free.

And the next morning, they'll head down into the canyon once again to pull more fence and return another stretch of rangeland to wilderness.