Virtual Fencing Bison Trial for Enhanced Ecological Restoration

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2024: $25,000.00
Projected End Date: 04/01/2027
Grant Recipient: NM Bison Restoration Network
Region: Western
State: New Mexico
Principal Investigator:
Maggie Knapp
NM Bison Restoration Network


  • Agronomic: other
  • Fruits: other
  • Nuts: other
  • Vegetables: other
  • Additional Plants: other
  • Animals: other
  • Animal Products: meat, other
  • Miscellaneous: other


  • Animal Production: grazing management, grazing - rotational, range improvement
  • Crop Production: drought tolerance, pollinator habitat
  • Education and Training: networking, on-farm/ranch research, youth education
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration, habitat enhancement
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil microbiology
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, partnerships, urban/rural integration

    Proposal summary:

    Aridification, overgrazing, and intensified drought/flood
    patterns are the most significant challenges to the resilience of
    western working lands. This project aims to research the efficacy
    of virtual fencing for bison, which could make possible the
    replacement of detrimental free-range cattle grazing with
    rotationally-grazed bison on degraded public rangelands.
    Rangeland restoration is a significant need across the West,
    where native perennial grasslands are heavily eroded and
    overgrazed, yet have the potential to sequester significant
    atmospheric carbon if restored to fertility. As crop failures and
    food shortages become more commonplace, models of ecological
    restoration that can also provide more resilient regional food
    security are increasingly needed, and partnering with local
    ecosystems to meet human needs builds resilient regional

    This project also seeks to demonstrate the efficacy of locally
    sourced compost, biochar, and mulch as rangeland restoration
    tools in combination with strategically timed rotational grazing.
    Compost, biochar, and mulch are all byproducts of other
    agricultural processes - food waste, forest thinning, and crop
    harvest - which can be locally produced and used to restore
    fertility on rangelands. In early-stage research trials by the
    Quivira Coalition, plots treated with compost have been shown to
    hold onto snow significantly longer into the Spring, and produce
    measurably more above-ground and below-ground biomass after just
    one year.

    This project has arisen from a request by native bison ranchers
    to trial virtual fencing, and the results of this trial will be
    widely shared with stakeholders and the public through ongoing
    meetings, seasonal field visits, regional conferences, working
    lands and soil health working groups, and the development of a
    collaborative rangeland stewardship network for New
    Mexico. In New Mexico we are
    much in need of local collaborative working groups and
    partnerships to ground federal and state agency money in
    meaningful, place-based ways for economic development and
    community resilience.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Research the efficacy of virtually fencing bison for
    containment, behavioral training, and rotational/adaptive grazing
    management. Initial research is currently underway at a partner
    project run by The Nature Conservancy at the Silver Mountain
    Preserve in Colorado, but further behavioral research is needed,
    and there has not yet been any research on the ecological effects
    of bison managed using virtual fencing (Vence is the manufacturer
    of the virtual fencing currently being trialed and would support
    this project with their research findings, but NoFence would
    provide discounted collars and technical support for this trial,
    and is more cost-effective for smaller herds).


    2. Undertake an initial 3-year research trial of different
    combinations of several different approaches to restoring
    brittle, degraded rangeland in the Southwest: the application of
    organic amendments (biochar, BEAM compost, and standard compost),
    mulching, juniper removal by bison, and rotational/adaptive
    grazing management. This project will study the effects of
    applying a fungally-dominated compost made using a Johnson-Su
    Bioreactor on the growth of perennial bunchgrasses (Studies by
    Dr. Johnson at NMSU show a 25-fold increase in active soil fungal
    biomass and an annual average capture and storage of 10.27 metric
    tons soil carbon/hectare/year (approximately 38,000 pounds of
    CO2/acre/year) when combining the application of BEAM compost
    with intensive rotational grazing in a 4.5 year agricultural
    field study). Prior SARE grant research has already demonstrated
    the efficacy of these restoration techniques on drylands, but
    demonstration using bison and virtual fencing combined with
    organic amendments has never been undertaken, and low-cost,
    accessible models of rangeland restoration are greatly needed in
    northern New Mexico. 


    3. Research the efficacy of these restoration techniques for
    improving ecological function and mitigating extreme weather
    events (drought and flash flooding) using the Point Blue
    Conservation Science Rangeland Monitoring Network protocols for
    sampling soil, vegetation, and wildlife on rangelands. Samples
    will measure water infiltration, soil compaction (bulk density),
    soil organic carbon, bacterial and fungal composition, above and
    below-ground vegetative biomass, percentage of soil cover, forage
    availability, and overall biodiversity (species richness and
    species composition).


    4. Research whether through thick application of mulch the spring
    snowmelt can be better infiltrated into the ground, and be more
    reliably timed to the germination of native seeds.


    5. Involve local middle school, high school, and college students
    in the collection and interpretation of research data.


    6. Outreach to local ranchers, tribes, land managers, wildlife
    refuges, conservation groups, and governmental agencies to share
    outcomes of trial, and build a regional network of best practices
    for bison and rangeland restoration.


    7. Maintain current working relationships with other bison
    restoration stakeholders (Valles Caldera National Preserve,
    Sandia Pueblo, Picuris Pueblo, Pojoaque Pueblo, the Coalmine
    Canyon Chapter of the Navajo Nation, American Prairie Reserve,
    the Northern NM Wildlife Refuge Complex, the Vermejo Park Turner
    Reserve, WildEarth Guardians, the Quivira Coalition, the NM
    Coalition to Enhance Working Lands, the NM Healthy Soils Working
    Group, Silver Mountain Preserve, Zapata Ranch, and The Nature
    Conservancy) to share research findings and develop a network of
    best practice around bison reintroduction and rangeland


    8. Demonstrate that bison restoration to degraded rangelands can
    enhance regional food security and land-based economic prosperity
    in New Mexico and the West. 

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.