How Open Range Ranching Applies to Non-Ranchers
What You Need to Know About Living Near a Cattle Range
The laws surrounding open range ranching are opposite what you’d expect closer to civilization. But you need to know the rights and responsibilities of both yourself and the rancher in order to live in harmony.
It’s a scenario that happens a lot in small towns. Fred and Edna walk into the café, pulling out the few dollars they have left for a chicken fried steak. Flo looks through the window and gasps in horror. She asks, “What happened to your truck?”
Fred sighs and replies, “Hit a cow.”
“Oh, dear! How much do you have to pay the rancher?”
If you don’t reside on homesteading land, you might think, “Wait a minute. Doesn’t the rancher have to pay for the truck? What about Fred’s insurance? What were the rancher’s cattle doing out on the road? How irresponsible!”
That’s how open range ranching differs.
Within most places in Canada and the eastern United States, owners are required to fence in their livestock. But the West is more wild, rugged, open and laid back. In some of the more vast areas, fences haven’t yet been built but the rancher still has rights to range on the land. Government-owned property, such as BLM or Forest Service land, may not have fencing at all.
Why Open Range Exists
Much of the Wild West was unregulated. Pioneers traveled in wagons, staked a homesteading claim, and built houses. Laws governed little at that time, including how cattle were to be raised. And before the western territories even became states, land which wasn’t privately owned was free for public use. Cowboys moved cattle from hill to hill so they could calve and grow while consuming what grass and water was available. Then the cowboys rounded the grown cattle and drove them to market. Ranchers branded their livestock to identify them. Because unbranded “maverick” animals were unidentifiable, they could be claimed by anyone who could capture them.
Barbed wire was invented in the 1870s as a cheaper way to contain the cattle. But this led to problems where ranchers fenced off land they didn’t own, keeping out other ranchers who had just as much right to graze their cattle on the same hills. Vigilantes cut fences while states tried to enforce fencing. The solution was to outlaw the enclosure of public land.
Eventually civilization grew with the development of railroads and mining, and laws developed within the more heavily populated areas to control the cattle. But they were rarely challenged where livestock outnumbered people.
Hills and prairies are vast. Water is spaced out. It made more sense to build a costly fence around houses and businesses than around the entire range. Where open range ranching still exists, the rules are simple: if you don’t want cattle on your property, build a fence.
Definition of Open Range Law
Though the regulations differ state by state, open range is defined the same. The Nevada Statute in NRS 568.355 defines open range as “all unenclosed land outside of cities and towns upon which cattle, sheep or other domestic animals by custom, license, lease or permit are grazed or permitted to roam.”
Thirteen states, from Texas and Colorado on westward, have some form of open range law.
Ranchers can rarely graze their livestock on public land just because it exists. They must obtain and pay for a permit. Livestock cannot trample protected land such as national parks. Conservation efforts, such as attempts to save endangered fish species, may also impede open range ranching. Livestock are rarely, if ever, allowed to wander within towns. But they retain full rights in unprotected areas.
Your Rights and Responsibilities
A freelance photographer in Arizona forgot to close his gate after driving his mother to the hospital. He came home to 20 cattle trampling his yard. Angered and intending to only scare the animals away, he shot his .22 rifle and ended up killing one cow on his own property. He found himself in handcuffs, charged with a felony. He claimed self-defense. His mother had Alzheimer’s, and he had to protect his property. But Ken Knudson faced years of legal trouble that became his eventual undoing.
If you plan on homesteading land, research local laws. Identify whether you live in a “herd district,” where the owner must fence animals in, or within “open range” ranching areas where you are required to fence other peoples’ animals out. Herd districts protect the homeowner. If the cattle invade your property, trample your garden, injure your dog, and scratch your car, you can press charges against the rancher because his animals were supposed to be contained.
And if you do live near open range, build that fence before problems happen. DIY fence installation takes a lot of work at the beginning but saves expensive legal problems later. Ask within your homesteading community regarding what kind of fence you should build. Cattle may kick pole fences apart but avoid the pain of barbed wire. Range land is often shared by livestock and wildlife, which means simple barbed wire will protect you legally but won’t keep deer out of your cornfield.
When you travel, pay attention to those yellow, diamond-shaped signs featuring a black cow and the words “open range.” Be vigilant. In the winter, cattle may be lying on the warm pavement. They may gather along the dotted yellow line in the middle of the dark, starless night. It’s your job to slow down and drive around them.
Cattle drives become scarcer but they still exist. Some states require ranchers to use lights and signals to warn drivers of livestock on the road but others require the driver to pay attention. Even if you’re in a hurry and two hundred head of Herefords and a manure-slick highway are going to make you late, you must proceed with caution until you are completely clear of livestock and the families moving the cattle down the road.
And if you hit a cow, report it to the local sheriff’s department and your insurance immediately. You will be required to reimburse the rancher for the cost of the cow. In addition, you are responsible for your own vehicular damage. If you must obtain a lawyer, keep in mind that the lawyer has probably already dealt with cases involving open range law. If the lawyer tells you that the rights belong to the rancher, there’s little you can do to change that.
Interstates are fenced off already, but too many highways stretch through isolated rangeland to warrant building costly barriers. Ranchers do try to keep their cattle off the highways. The costs of farming are so high that keeping their livestock safe avoids situations where motorists maim or kill then animals then drive off in vehicles that are still operable, refusing to report the accident. But cattle do what they’re going to do. Despite the ranchers’ efforts, livestock wander onto the road.
The Rancher’s Rights and Responsibilities
In 2007, a man driving in southern Nevada hit one of a local rancher’s cattle. The family of the deceased man blamed the rancher for negligence and sued her for one million dollars. Though the case should have been dismissed because the cow was on open range, the lawyer failed to follow protocol. The case went to court several times. Finally, the judge agreed with the rancher’s lawyer when he claimed that Ms. Fallini had done nothing wrong. Per state statute, she was not held accountable for the accident or the death.
Though the Fallini case was a triumph for the ranching community, it also ignited fears. What if the judge had ruled in the plaintiff’s favor and the rancher lost everything because someone hit one of her cows?
NRS 568.360 states, “No person…owning, controlling or in possession of any domestic animal running on open range has the duty to keep the animal off any highway traversing or located on the open range, and no such person…is liable for damages.” That means that, whether the accident causes extensive damage or death, the rancher is not to blame as long as their cattle are ranging on land which they are permitted to use. Fence or no fence.
But though those 13 states have open range laws, very few allow ranchers to graze animals on or near the highway. Those that do not hold ranchers accountable include Wyoming and Nevada. In Utah, livestock cannot roam on the highway if both sides of the road are separated from adjoining property by a fence, wall, hedge, sidewalk, curb, lawn or building. California only allows open range within six counties.
Some states, such as Idaho, are “fence out” states. That means livestock owners are not responsible for damage to property, gardens, shrubbery or injury to people or other animals. Homeowners have the responsibility to build strong fences to keep cattle out.
Living in Harmony
Resistance to open range law is a major factor in the struggle and decline of modern ranching. Urbanites moving to the country in the new wave of homesteading today don’t want to slow down for cattle on the road. They don’t want to fence their properties, and they are quick to blame the ranchers for damage.
The divide widens the further people’s understanding meanders from the ways of the Old West. Open range beef is grass-fed beef. Ranchers are the last of the original homesteaders, living generation after generation on land their great grandparents claimed when states were just territories. But modern times push them out. Lack of cooperation and willingness to work within the established system spark legal troubles and a fight to change the laws. Tempers flare within small communities.
The Oregonian newspaper, in 1997, reported that about a thousand motorists per year hit livestock in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Utah. Several motorists die. But ranchers can’t afford to fence all the land their livestock graze, and are often unable to fence federal land. Even if they could the cost would be devastating to the local homesteading communities.
Even ranchers fight with other ranchers. Some are in favor of fencing off the rangeland. Purebred Hereford and Angus herds get invaded by crossbreeds from another ranch. Small-town mayors want to support open range ranching but want the livestock to stop defecating within city limits.
Though each year brings Old West laws into modern times, for the good or detriment of the ranchers, it’s each person’s responsibility to educate himself on open range ranching. If you relocate to cattle or sheep country, become familiar with the locals. Inquire about the laws or look them up yourself. Know your rights and those of the ranchers. Sometimes just the education, and the willingness to slow down and cooperate, can save expensive troubles later on.
Do you homestead where open range ranching laws apply? Do you fence your livestock? Let us know in the comments below.