Imagine heading to your corn field and realizing your crop has been damaged by stray cattle. Who's to blame for these damages - the livestock owner or the private property owner? The answer may be a surprise, depending on where you live.
Two of three Fergus County commissioners denied a proposal Oct. 9, that would have expanded the boundaries of the Winifred Herd District in Montana, allowing private property owners to have more legal protection if stray cattle damage their property. The meeting was controversial, reported David Murray of Great Falls Tribune.
Three Winifred-area landowners spoke in support of the expansion, proposing to add 16,000 acres to the Winifred Herd District. Ten other community members spoke against this proposal and presented a petition with 147 signatures, deeming the appropriation as "unethical," reported Murray.
“The commissioners didn’t have guts enough to push it on through,” Ed Butcher, former state Sen. and one of the Winifred-area landowners who spoke, told Murrary. “We’re not looking for something just to create a big fight with the neighbors. What we’re looking at is to control that blatant neighbor that refuses to fix any fence, overstocks his pasture, and so consequently the cattle are busting into other people’s property. Then he just basically tells you to go to hell.”
This dispute brings up Montana's historical and controversial open range law. Only three states - Montana, Wyoming and Colorado - legally have a large majority of rural lands considered "open range." This means property owners hold all the responsibility if their neighbors free-roaming cattle damage their property. Therefore, if a cow ruins a neighbors crop or causes a wreck, the livestock owner usually doesn't have any legal liability, reported Murray.
“When large numbers of homesteaders began entering Montana and separating their farm fields from the public domain, the fencing law was already clearly established,” Montana State University professor Jeff Mosley wrote in 2011. “Homestead farmers not wanting free-roaming livestock to access their crop fields had the same responsibility to fence out the livestock as did the stockmen wishing to fence out the livestock from their hayfields.”
Previously, 23 Western states had open range laws, but eventually most of these states adapted laws to conform to the "fence in" laws, keeping livestock on a "closed range," reported Murray.
Robert Bold, co-owner of the X Hanging Diamond Ranch outside Winifred and a main organizer of the Winifred Herd District, told Murray he's repeatedly had problems with neighbors' cattle causing substantial damage by getting into his grain fields.
“Over the years we’ve had problems with neighbors’ livestock trespassing,” Bold said. “Under open range, it’s up to you to keep the cattle out, so if the guy who’s got the cattle overgrazes to the point that they go through well-maintained fences — and if a cow’s starving to death they will — it can get to the point where it’s almost impossible to keep them out."