By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Open range areas along U.S. Highway 87 south of Havre have been problematic for motorists using the highway, Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera said.
The Sheriff's Office has received numerous complaints about livestock on or near the highway, and two women were hospitalized Saturday after their car collided with a horse. The horse was killed.
The accident has prompted local law enforcement and the State Department of Livestock to search for ways to better enforce animal grazing laws. Szudera and state livestock detective Dan Campbell have been meeting to figure out what recourse the Sheriff's Office has under somewhat confusing state laws.
Sections of the highway between Box Elder and Havre are not fenced, and livestock grazing within the the designated open range area sometimes poses a hazard to traffic.
"We've had a number of calls about horses loose on the highway near that area," Szudera said. "I am investigating it, and it is an issue the Sheriff's Office has dealt with in the past, and something I need to look at to see how we can make the roads safe for people to use without running into horses or cattle."
Open range areas are defined by state law as places "where livestock are raised and maintained in sufficient numbers to constitute a significant part of the local or county economy and where livestock graze and move about generally unrestrained by fences."
State law requires all primary and secondary highways within the state to be fenced "through open range where livestock present a hazard to the safety of the motorist." The law applies only to highways built or reconstructed after 1969, meaning it does not apply to sections of U.S. Highway 87 that have not undergone a major reconstruction.
The state Legislature also has granted a special exemption for State Highway 234 through Beaver Creek Park, which is an open range area.
For many years, farmers and ranchers had no duty to prevent animals from causing property damage in open range areas.
Then, in 2000 the state Supreme Court ruled that livestock owners are responsible for protecting motorists ''against unreasonable risks of harm under the circumstances.''
Many livestock owners said the Supreme Court ruling ignored 100 years of ''open range'' policy. Unhappy with the court ruling, the Legislature passed a bill in 2001 that absolved farmers and ranchers of responsibility for some accidents between vehicles and livestock.
The law put the open range principle back into place, but made owners liable for accidents attributable to gross negligence or intentional misconduct.
Campbell said the law only negates the liability of the livestock owner if damage results from an unpreventable accident, and does not give livestock owners the right to graze cattle on public rights of way.
"That's the biggest problem is that this just isn't cut and dry," Campbell said. "I know that the (law) releases a person from any liability. That's on an instance when (livestock) get out by natural causes, like if they're forced through a fence by a blizzard."
The law does not give livestock owners free rein to graze cattle on highways where they could cause accidents, he said. On county roads and secondary highways like State Highway 234, drivers are more prepared to encounter cattle, he said, but on larger highways and interstates, drivers do not expect to have to avoid livestock. In those instances, livestock owners have an obligation to keep their animals off the road, Campbell said.
In fact, another state law says, "a person who owns or possesses livestock may not permit the livestock to graze, remain upon, or occupy" part of a highway.
Another state law allows counties to round up "nuisance" animals, and cite their owners, but does not clearly define what constitutes a nuisance, Szudera said.
"Law enforcement has to show beyond a reasonable doubt that this horse is a menace or a nuisance to people on the highway. That may mean more than one incident of being negligently turned loose to roam on the highway," he said. "We're trying to figure out what number of calls we receive would cause it to be designated as a public nuisance."
Szudera said he met with Campbell on Monday to discuss what options are available to law enforcement.
"Presently, the Hill County Sheriff's Office and the state livestock inspector are working on this issue to come up with a solution to the problem," he said.
The sheriff's dispatch logs from last weekend show that at 2 p.m. on Saturday, a caller complained about six horses running loose on the highway near mile 96. Four hours later, two woman were injured when their car struck a horse several miles north of the initial report. At 5:13 a.m. Monday, another caller reported eight horses loose close to the highway near the intersection at Laredo Road. Another call Tuesday night reported a group of horses loose near mile 99.
Receiving such calls is a regular occurrence, Szudera said, adding that the Sheriff's Office has received 21 complaints about livestock loose on Highway 87 in a little over a year.
The accident involving the horse occurred about 6:15 p.m. Saturday near mile 99. Dona Woods, 56, of Havre was traveling north in a 1998 Subaru Legacy when the car struck a black horse. Woods and her daughter, Dana Robertson, 28, were both injured in the crash.
A truck traveling in the opposite direction struck the horse's carcass, causing extensive damage to that vehicle. The driver of the truck, Harriet McCormick, 51, of Kremlin, was not injured.
Szudera said the Sheriff's Office believes it has identified the owner of the horse and that the case has been referred to the Hill County Attorney's Office. The Sheriff's Office will likely serve the owner with a summons on a charge of horse abandonment, Szudera said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.