11/18/2012 6:01:00 AM
Guest Column: Have open range laws outlived their usefulness?
Two free-range cattle belonging to rancher Travis Julio quench their thirsts by drinking water from a small child’s pool in the front yard of a house in Golden Valley. Many residents are upset about stray cows wandering through neighborhoods, knocking down fences and munching on plants.
Two free-range cattle belonging to rancher Travis Holyoak quench their thirsts by drinking water from a small child’s pool in the front yard of a house in Golden Valley. Many residents are upset about stray cows wandering through neighborhoods, knocking down fences and munching on plants.

Butch Meriwether
Butch's Brew

A dust-covered cowboy sitting atop his mighty steed and herding livestock on month-long cattle drives was once the quintessential symbol of the American frontier.

Those days are gone from the Southwest. No longer do cowboys and cowgirls herd thousands of four-legged steaks on hooves hundreds of miles to the slaughterhouses.

Nowadays, cattle drives are accomplished by local ranch hands rounding up the "free-range" cattle. Then semi-trucks and trailers transport them.

The majority of cattle in our area are considered free range and many ranchers lease land from the Bureau of Land Management as a low-cost method of having their cattle feed on natural vegetation instead of having to feed expensive hay to them in corrals actually located on the various ranches.

There are 9,400 cattle grazing permits on the 2.7 million acres of public lands managed by the Kingman Field Office of BLM just in Mohave County alone. BLM receives $1.35 per animal each month from the 50 ranchers who take advantage of the grazing permits, for a total of about $12,690 monthly for the cattle that graze in Mohave County.

However, not all of the grazing allocations are fully utilized by the ranchers and many of the ranchers have grazing permits for more than one of the allotments, which are limited to 91 for Mohave County.

What is interesting is the BLM range management specialists conduct use supervision - normally about two to four times annually on larger operations and less often on the smaller ones - on the allotment areas to ensure compliance with the terms and conditions of grazing permits.

BLM, in cooperation with the ranchers, relies mostly on the honor system; they take the word of the ranchers as to how many cattle they have grazing on BLM lands at any given time.

The problem with this scenario is many of the cattle escape from BLM-managed lands because people forget to close the gates along the fences that separate BLM public lands from private property.

Mohave County residents are upset about stray cows wandering through their neighborhoods and causing destruction by knocking down their fences and munching on plants and other vegetation.

Cows are again on most residents' minds since more cattle are aimlessly wandering through residential areas of the county. And there was a vehicle-cow accident that occurred last month when three vehicles crashed into a 600-pound steer that had decided to wander across Highway 68.

There was another "cow in the road" incident last month in Mohave Valley in which a driver of a car swerved to miss a cow and slammed head-on into a power pole, causing an outage to more than 13,000 UniSource Energy Services customers in Mohave Valley, Yucca, Golden Valley and Kingman.

Emmett Sturgell owns Canyon Springs Ranch and leases Cedar Ranch, and a 20-mile stretch of Stockton Hill Road runs through them. He has lost 21 head of cattle to vehicle-cow accidents just this year alone.

Another vehicle-cow accident occurred on Hualapai Mountain Road about a year and a half ago that killed the cow and totaled the vehicle.

To add insult to injury, if the cows are killed in an open range area, the drivers of the vehicles that hit the cows are liable to the rancher for compensation for the cow. The current value of a cow is between $800 and $1,100 depending upon weight and if it is a female.

I guess it is lucky that, as far as I know, no one has been seriously injured in the vehicle-cow accidents in recent years, but if these types of accidents continue to occur, sooner or later someone is going to be killed.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, there weren't as many problems with cows causing destruction because there just weren't that many built-up communities.

However, most now believe Arizona's open range laws are archaic and should be modified or completely done away with and left in the proverbial past just like Wild West gunfighters.

Times have changed, with communities sprouting up just about everywhere. There isn't room for cattle to coexist in people's front yards.

People frustrated with the damage cows are causing wonder if they have any recourse to the wandering-cow situation. Where the damage occurs will determine if they can be reimbursed or not.

Since most of Arizona is designated as open range, the property owner doesn't have much chance of recouping their losses for damage caused by stray cattle if that damage was not in a fenced in area.

However, if a wayward cow breaks through a fence and causes damage, the property owner does have a legal recourse if the fence was constructed in accordance with ARS 3-1426.

The ARS stipulates, in part, "...a lawful fence is constructed and maintained with good and substantial posts firmly placed in the ground at intervals of not more than 30 feet, upon which posts are fastened at least four barbed wires of usual type ... with the top wire being fifty inches above the ground and the other wires at intervals below the top wire of twelve, twenty-two, and thirty-two inches. However, all fences constructed of other than the barbed wire method equally as strong that will turn away the livestock shall be deemed a lawful fence ...."

ARS 3-1428 stipulates that if the damage was in a fenced area and is less than $200, the property owner can seek restitution from the justice of the peace in which the land is located, and if the damage is more than $200, they can seek restitution through the Superior Court system.

The best thing to do is not immediately run down to the court to file a lawsuit against the livestock owner if you know their name or you recognize the brand on the livestock.

Contact the Kingman BLM office at (928) 718-3700 to determine who actually owns the cattle, get the telephone number of the rancher from BLM, contact the livestock owner and attempt to iron out a fair and equitable settlement.

If residents are concerned about cattle roaming through their unfenced yards and destroying their vegetation, they have another viable solution: Petition the Mohave County Board of Supervisors to designate "no-fence districts" as stipulated in ARS 3-1421.

What this means is if enough residents in a particular area submit a petition to have the BOS designate a specific area as a no-fence district, the BOS shall immediately enter the contents upon its records and order the no-fence district be formed.

(For more information about no-fence districts, visit http://www.azleg.state.az.us/ArizonaRevisedStatutes.asp.)

Once a no-fence district is instituted, the property damage caused by wandering cattle falls on the livestock owner even if the property isn't fenced. And besides that, if the owner or person in charge of the cattle recklessly allows livestock to run at large within a no-fence district, they are guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor, in addition to being liable for the damages.

The resolution to the vehicle-cow accidents and the property damage is twofold.

Ranchers must be proactive, good stewards of private owner's property rights, and they must be more responsible for what their cattle do.

Residents, of course, must take into consideration that they currently reside in an open range area. They must ensure their properties are as cow-proof as possible in order keep wayward cattle from devouring their plants and vegetation.


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