Fragments from

Red Butte Fence:
Tracing Animal Movement and Obstruction

Listen to a related podcast here.

I run up a steep grade, over the first signs of grass emerging from the red mud, until my calves begin to cramp. I stretch and continue, running until I’m hungry. On a south-facing slope, deer trails transect the landscape between oak and maple brushlands below. Leaving the muddy main trail, I step onto an indistinct line of hoof prints perforating last year’s grass. This path takes me into what looks like an impenetrable wall of Wasatch Chaparral, but it is surprisingly permeable, while also providing a temporary refuge where I pause and listen before resuming my otherwise exposed route.

The trail continues, the subtlety of the impressions left by animals almost the watermark on a page of earth. A ghost’s signature. Generations of animals and I inhabit the same space only separated by time, a potentially tenuous separation. My own lived-in house can be viewed similarly. The previous inhabitants are revived through the worn wood floors. For decades, a bed sat against the eastern wall of the bedroom where someone threw their legs over the side, slid on their slippers, shuffled out of the room into the hall, and went around the corner to the kitchen. This line of movement, repeated thousands of times, wore a trail into the hardwood floor, a collective signature of individual lives. In some ways these individuals—likely long gone—still live on in the residue of their lives as shown by these worn oak boards. And still the eastern wall is the best place in this room for a bed, so I do what others have done. My feet land where theirs did. I continue tracing this path.

So, too, does this generational deer path reference a need that flows through time uninterrupted: the need to move from food source to food source as the seasons and conditions change. Unable to forage on grass, and without the correct incisors or gut bacteria to process raw cottontails, I follow anyway. Emerging from the chaparral, I cross a road and dead end at a fence about seven feet tall, with three rows of barbed wire overhanging in my direction. Which way now? If I go right and follow the road, I will end up crossing sidewalks, parking lots, closely-mowed grass fields and busy roads. My office and the work that I need to do is in that direction, so I choose the other way.

I go left and skirt the edge of the fence until it bends and dips into the creek bed where it crosses Red Butte Creek. The deer trail which had been lost in the road picks up again on the other side. Mud coats the bottoms of my shoes that become ice skates as I descend the slope. Hoofs would be preferable in this early season mud. On the other side of the creek, the trail continues to hug the fence as it works its way up toward Red Butte.

This fence is necessary for protecting nature-as-garden within from nature-as-metabolic process without. If they could get inside, the deer would eat everything! Who could blame them? And who could blame Red Butte Gardens for wanting to keep their plants alive? This dilemma becomes emblematic of the general concept of ownership which has consequences for anyone who might have an eye for petunias, or sheep. So it is that the path of the deer and the path of the predator intersect here where I stand looking through the fence. The fates of many become entwined with and inseparable from the concept of property ownership. This narrative plays out all across the west where abstract barriers stretch, twist and cut up old signatures.

Three sets of giant ears hurry up the slope ahead of me. Although I don’t know the exact range of these deer, I do know they are moving along the western-most boundary of the Heart of the West linkage, an integral section of the Western Wildway. The Western Wildway is a wildlife corridor which links smaller regions of wildlife movement and dispersal to a larger corridor running from the Yukon to Mexico. While the deer just encountered do not walk this entire 5,000 mile linkage, animals collectively do, and this freedom of movement allows wildlife to adapt as fire, urban sprawl, or oil and gas development push them onto unfamiliar ranges.

By building right angles into their previously meandering routes, our roads and fences are rewriting this generational signature of wildlife dispersal and movement. Through the on-the-ground experience of tracing these paths and imagining their historical trajectory, an ancestral language can be reconstructed, a spectral alphabet deciphered. I am attempting this work now as I follow this deer path along the edge of the city, which is also the edge of something else. This “long-term tracking and monitoring of focal species” is the best way to achieve this identification of current corridors and the reconstruction of old ones, according to Dave Foreman, author of Rewilding North America. The fact that this trail hugs the fence tells me that if they could, these deer might walk this entire drainage through the valley to the Jordan River. It might be too late for that now, but it might not be too late for the reconstruction of other paths.

How might a coyote get to Big Cottonwood Canyon if she were unable to trace old paths through the valley? She might try the back way. She might work her way up this drainage, descend into East Canyon and then attempt to make her way across I-80. This very path has been common enough that in the span of only two years, 98 deer, along with a few elk, moose and mountain lions were struck and killed in that area. Locals voiced their concern and started a nonprofit called Save People, Save Wildlife in 2015. They raised money to initiate the building of a bridge at the top of Parley’s Canyon, and eventually the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) began construction. Other such bridges have proved successful. Wildlife collisions decreased 80 percent after the installation of overpasses on the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park. Where else are these overpasses needed?

From this point, animal paths (and sightlines) extend east to the Uintas, north to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and south to the High Plateaus of Utah. I can only guess at the obstructions that make these animal paths more theoretical than actual. Clinging to the fence in order to keep from sliding down the mud into the creek, another sightline suddenly makes itself known: the one that runs from my stomach to the sandwich I left in my office. I leave the fence, the creek and the path and return to my office to dig through my backpack looking for that sandwich. But when I get to my building the door is locked. I begin feeling around for my keys. If I can’t find them it will be a long walk home.

~ Ben Kilbourne (Spring 2019)

To explore related Sightlines, follow this route

For further reading:

Foreman, Dave. Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century, Island Press, 2004.

“New overpass finished at Parleys summit — just for wildlife to cross I-80.” (Salt Lake Tribune, 2018),

“Western Wildway.” Wildlands Network. Accessed January 21, 2019.

“Wasatch Wildlife Watch.” Wild Utah Project. Accessed March 8, 2019.

“Migration.” Utah Department of Natural Resources. Accessed February 19, 2019.

“Udall, Beyer Introduce Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act to Safeguard America’s Biodiversity.” Tom Udall. Accessed March 17, 2019.