Examining Oregon's open range laws
Open range laws have been a source of contention in Crook County.
County Undersheriff James Savage knows of quite a few local drivers through the years, and one within the past month, who have accidentally hit a cow and later learned that because the animal was on open range land, they were financially liable for it.
"People get very upset," he said.
Open range land is property where livestock from ranches are legally allowed to roam free on the landscape. The amount of land has been in gradual decline statewide, though much of it remains in Crook County and other places throughout Oregon. In fact, the entirety of Grant, Harney and Lake counties are open range, and locally there are large portions of such land in Powell Butte, on Ochoco Forest and down Madras Highway.
"When it's open range, if you hit a cow, you have just bought the cow," Savage said. "If you hit a cow grazing alongside the road, you are civilly liable for that cow and the damage to your vehicle."
Jack Noble, who is the manager for Oregon Department of Agriculture's Animal Identification Program, explained that open range initially existed statewide. The amount of open range land has since been reduced through the development of livestock districts.
"If you look at the state and assume that it is all open range, livestock had the right to roam wherever they wanted," he explained. "Over time, the incorporated cities became livestock districts. Livestock districts, as defined in (Oregon Revised Statute 607) are an area where it is unlawful for livestock to run at large."
The amount of livestock districts has since increased beyond incorporated cities, Noble said, as different counties and groups of people who meet the established criteria have voted and created livestock districts.
"It's a patchwork quilt — for lack of a better term — of livestock districts," he remarked.
To form a livestock district, "an elector … may petition the county court or board of county commissioners to hold an election for such purpose," ORS 607.010 states. "The petition shall be filed with the county clerk of the county wherein the district is sought to be created. …"
The petition must include the signatures of six or more electors from each precinct included in the proposed livestock district boundary, and no district can be smaller than 2,000 acres.
The statute goes on to describe requirements for a public hearing on formation of the livestock district and an election, which must be held within the proposed district.
"The notice shall clearly state that the purpose of the election is to make it unlawful to permit livestock or a class of livestock to run at large within the boundaries described," ORS 607.015 states.
While Savage said that people who hit and kill livestock on open range are financially liable for the animal, Noble acknowledges that the requirement has faced more and more dispute of late.
"There is nothing in the statute that talk about this," Noble said, "but historically the vehicle driver is responsible to pay for the animal as compared to in a livestock district, the owner of the animal is responsible for the damage to the vehicle."
However, people and insurance companies in particular are legally challenging the historic norm, he said, and ranchers have been telling him recently that the situations are more often leaning toward no fault.
Another facet of open range law that has caused concern relates to what happens when livestock on open range come onto and destroy the personal property of a neighbor living in an open range area.
"If you are in an open range area and you don't want your neighbor's cattle encroaching on your land, you are required to fence those animals out," Noble explained.
If a property owner attempts to do so, but the animal continues to come onto and destroy their property, they can contact the Department of Agriculture, and one of the approximately 60 brand inspectors that Noble supervises would come out and conduct an inspection.
"We would go out and verify that they have an adequate fence to keep animals out," he said.
Noble acknowledges that open range areas throughout the state continue to decline as new districts are proposed and ultimately approved, but they are not overtaking the landscape at a rapid pace. Noble knows of two proposed districts within the last year statewide, but little other action has taken place.
"There are some rumblings here and there," he said, "but whether they follow through or not, we haven't seen a lot come in."
Meanwhile, the rise in litigation and the potential transition toward no-fault decisions on vehicle versus livestock incidents could continue to alter the historic norm.
And while all of the open range land and associated rules and laws remain in a continual state of flux, Noble reminds the public that ranchers are trying to prevent the amount of incidents where any concerns about open range laws come into question.
"The vast majority of cattlemen throughout the state, even in open range areas, try to keep their animals off of the highways," he said. "Nobody wants to have animals hit on the road."