Carol Ryan Dumas/Capital Press
SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Idaho’s open range laws have come under a lot of scrutiny the last couple of years, and there’s a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about those laws among the public and even ranchers.
It’s a complicated area due to the crosscurrent of federal, state and local laws, said Bill Myers, a public lands and natural resources attorney with Holland and Hart.
The scrutiny came to a head with the shooting of rancher Jack Yantis, he said during the Idaho Cattle Association annual convention.
Yantis was killed by two Adams County sheriff’s deputies in November 2015 after he was called to put down his bull that was struck by a vehicle on Hwy. 95 near Council. The owners of the vehicle are now calling for change to Idaho’s open range laws.
There are “lots of wrinkles” in open range laws, and ranchers should pay attention to any proposed changes, Myers said.
The laws are difficult to weigh through, and immunity on federal highways is unclear. But Idaho is a “fence-out” state — it’s up to landowners to fence livestock out of their land. Ranchers are not liable for damage or injury resulting from an accident involving wandering livestock, Myers said.
“But herd districts turn that on its head,” he said.
Herd districts are a legislative exception, wherein livestock owners must fence in their land to prevent livestock from roaming off their property and are potentially liable for any damage caused by their livestock.
Herd districts can be created through a petition of landowners to their county commission, or commissioners can simply do it by ordinance — not a herd district per se but a controlling of livestock, Myers said.
Herd districts cannot include state or federal land or impose liability on a highway district for damage or injury resulting from livestock. Nor can they prohibit trailing of livestock on a public highway or hold the livestock owner liable for any harm while trailing, he said.
Herd districts require a lot of fencing and cattle guards, and property owners within the district are on the hook for the cost through county taxes, he said.
“It can be a fairly significant tax burden,” he said.
Taxpayers pay the full cost of constructing and maintaining legal fences and cattle guards on the district’s border, including on private property, and 75 percent of the cost of construction within the interior of the district.
Maintenance of interior fences and cattle guards on private property falls to the property owner. Construction and maintenance after the creation or modification of the district also fall to the property owner.
There are approximately 300 herd districts in Idaho, with more located in areas of higher populations, Myers said.
If an accident occurs outside of an open range area, there is a presumption of negligence. That can be rebutted if a livestock owner had a legal fence in good repair. The vehicle owner could also be liable for contributory negligence if, for instance, he wasn’t driving properly, he said.