Something there is that doesn't love a fence.

It's something deep in the psyche of western Wyoming, a rugged, beautiful, and wide-open world where the deer and the antelope still play and the old standard "Don't Fence Me In" still reflects a transcendent value for the region's sparse population.

But if that song ("Give me land, lots of land . . . ") has literal meaning in this range country, the principle of "don't fence me in" has a broader application as well.

The principle is that an individual can run his own affairs on his own land without interference from pesky government agencies. That, too, is a transcendent value here.

Now these fundamental but conflicting values have clashed head-on in an angry controversy over a nine-mile-long fence that snakes across the plains in the shadow of the snow-capped Uinta Mountains.

The fence is being built by J.R. Broadbent, a soft-spoken but determined rancher who runs several thousand head of sheep on a vast stretch of land. He says forays into his grazing land by wild antelope and neighboring ranchers' cattle impair the value of his ranch.

"We've been in this business a lifetime," Broadbent says. "We know good range management. And sometimes, if you're getting too much livestock impact on the forage, good range management means a fence."

"Our preference in areas like that, antelope areas, is no fence at all," counters Phil Riddle, local director of the state Game and Fish Department, at once the most loved and most loathed governmental agency in Wyoming.

"That's a very popular area among the general public for antelope," Riddle says. "You get that big fence in there, you're going to have antelope die off in the winter because the animals can't get to forage."

When these lines were drawn in the dust this spring, various groups allied themselves with one side or the other.

The Wyoming Woolgrowers and the Stockmen's Association backed Broadbent's right to protect his investment in sheep and land. The Wyoming Wildlife Federation -- which would likely be labeled a gun-lovers' group back East but is considered downright environmentalist here -- urged the Game and Fish Department to stand resolute in defense of the antelope.

It seemed as if Wyoming were headed for another battle between ranchers and wildlife lovers -- battles that frequently focus on a fence.

But the Broadbent case has proven more complicated than that.

For one thing, Broadbent and his fellow ranchers, like most other people here, have a real concern for the antelope.

And so Broadbent offered a compromise: He would build his fence, but he'd authorize Game and Fish workers to knock down certain sections of it each winter to permit antelope migration.

On the other hand, the government, for all its power, was hesitant to dictate what an individual could do on his own property. "In Wyoming, we pretty much say what happens on your land is your business," Riddle said.

Broadbent could build the fence he needs completely on land he owns. But because of the checkerboard nature of public and private land here -- a phenomenon from the 19th century, when the federal government gave away alternating sections of land to the railroads -- a fence strictly on private land would have had to zig-zag so abruptly that its length and cost would have nearly doubled.

And so, at a public hearing this month, Broadbent offered a compromise: He would build the shorter, cheaper sheep fence, but where it crossed public land he would install gates and knock-down sections so Game and Fish people could make passageways for wintering antelope. This would save him money and allow the antelope to roam.

The government rejected that plan -- it would take too much manpower to patrol the long fence, Riddle said -- and made a counter offer. Broadbent could build his fence across public land, but it would have to be a "standard, antelope-type fence": four strands of wire, the bottom one unbarbed so antelope could crawl under.

Broadbent took offense at that. He said he needed a wire-mesh fence -- one that looks like a tennis net -- because "the problem with that four-wire is the sheep and lambs can crawl under it, too."

And so the two sides fell back from the brink of compromise to a battle of principle. The dispute still rages, once again a clash of two basic values, both central to the way of life of western Wyoming.

"We're not going to let somebody in a government office tell us how to manage our own business," Broadbent says quietly. "We're either in business for ourselves or for the Game and Fish. It can't be both, or we lose the business."

"We're not going to permit a fence that endangers our wildlife," responds Riddle, the government official. "Basically, we don't want anybody to fence in that open range."