As my wife can attest, I love a good western movie! Many of my favorites (such as The Cowboys with John Wayne or Open Range starring Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner) romanticize the idea of the open range concept where cowboys free graze their cattle across the vast prairies of the West.
Under open range law today in many western states including Washington, this practice continues, but with some restraints. In the State of Washington, if you do not want cattle or other livestock on your property, it is your responsibility to fence them out. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the responsibility of the rancher to keep their livestock off your property. In other words, unless you have a legal fence that trespassing livestock have breached somehow, livestock owners cannot be held liable for damage to your property. A legal fence is defined in Washington code as one that is “at least four barbed, horizontal, well-stretched wires…fastened to posts set firmly in the ground… no more than eight feet from each other (or equivalent structure).”
If livestock break through a legal fence then the livestock owner may be held liable for damages to the fenced property. Another exception exists for unruly animals such as a neighbor’s breeding bulls or stallions. If such an animal is in the habit of breaking through or throwing down such legal fences and the owner is notified and they continue to allow the animal to run at large, the livestock owner can be held liable. Furthermore in such cases, Washington Code allows that, “Any person suffering damage by livestock which shall trespass upon land enclosed by a lawful fence, may retain and keep in custody such offending animals until the owner shall pay damages.”
The realization of this age old Open Range concept can be extremely frustrating for some naïve land owners who are living the dream of the peaceful rural lifestyle, only to have it interrupted one day by a herd of free ranging cattle that trample and defecate all over their lawn and destroy their flower beds in a matter of minutes. I received a call recently from a landowner who wanted to know how to extract his pound of flesh from an unsympathetic livestock owner, but was dismayed to hear that he had no recourse. This scenario plays out over and over again in rural settings, especially where residences border lands that are designated public range lands. Have you ever heard the saying, “Good Fences make good neighbors”?