Last week some cows wandered onto Interstate 17 in the desert north of Phoenix, Arizona, causing a serious accident which resulted in the death of a woman.
According to Arizona’s open range laws, and the laws of many other Western states, drivers are always to blame for hitting cattle on public roads and are liable for reimbursing ranchers for dead or injured animals. Furthermore, ranchers aren’t required to fence their cattle in, but everybody else is responsible for fencing them out.
The only exception, under Arizona law, is when a community succeeds in getting the local county board of supervisors to establish a “no-fence district” as per Arizona Revised Statutes (A.R.S.) Title 3, Chapter 11, Article 8. They are called no-fence districts because their residents aren’t required to erect fences to keep trespassing livestock off their private property. But even this law can only be implemented where there’s irrigated agricultural land or a community of at least 30,000 people.
Furthermore, if Arizona residents don’t live in a no-fence district and want to fence out unwanted livestock, the fences they build must be very sturdy and expensive in order to meet the definition of a “lawful fence.”
In regards to the protection of public lands from ecological damage caused by trespassing livestock, the Federal courts have repeatedly rendered decisions (Shannon v. United States, l60 Fed. 870 (Cir. 9 1908); Light v. United States, 220 U.S., 523; United States v. Gurley, 279 Fed. 874 (N.D. GA. 1922); United States v. Johnston, 38 F. Supp. 4 (S.D.W.VA. 1941)) holding that the United States is not required to fence public lands lands to protect them against unauthorized livestock use. In other words, it’s legal for federal agencies to subsidize the construction of fences on public grazing allotments to facilitate cattle grazing, but the Bureau or Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service aren’t required to erect fences to protect the land from trespassing livestock.
The persistence of these obsolete open range laws is is a good example of the disproportionate political clout of Western cattle ranchers.