Vast and sparsely populated, the rangeland in the western US is managed on horseback, on ATVs, and with thousands of miles of barbed wire fencing. Fencing is both a vital and imperfect technology. In the arid regions that stretch from Texas to Idaho, grass that is thick and green one week might be dust and tumbleweeds the next. Patches of poisonous plants come and go. Endangered birds might nest along a lush river for only a few weeks out of the year.
Put into widespread use in the late 1870s, the barbed wire fence destroyed one quintessentially American “technology” – that of the cowboy. It may now be time for a new technology to usurp the reign of barbed wire. Using GPS and a “bovine interface”, Dean M. Anderson, a scientist at the US Department of Agriculture, is hoping to transform the way we manage cattle, and by extension, the entire ecology of the American West.