By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
A series of complaints about livestock on U.S. Highway 87 has prompted Hill County officials to ask landowners to fence property adjacent to the highway.
The Hill County Commission and County Attorney Cyndee Peterson have asked two landowners to petition to have their land annexed into an existing herd district northwest of Highway 87. Such a move would require the landowners to fence their property.
The County Commission has also asked the Chippewa Cree Tribe to form a herd district along the highway.
The requests stemmed in part from a Dec. 13 crash in which a Havre woman was hospitalized after her car struck a horse standing in the middle of Highway 87, county officials said. The owner of the horse - 36-year-old Peter Demontiney of Box Elder - received a summons Friday to appear in court on a charge of negligent endangerment.
"This office is always concerned with the public safety when it comes to cars and cattle," County Commissioner Doug Kaercher said. "We are encouraging landowners to petition to establish herd districts on their land in the interest of public safety."
Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera has said his office received more than 20 complaints about livestock grazing on or near the highway last year. By law, it is illegal for landowners to allow livestock to graze along state and federal highways.
Although state law requires highways to be fenced on both sides, sections of U.S. Highway 87 between Havre and Box Elder are not fenced because of an exemption for highways built before 1969. Those highways do not have to be fenced unless they are rebuilt or undergo major repair.
That exemption, combined with the area's designation as open range, has resulted in numerous instances in which motorists were put at risk by livestock.
The County Commission can only designate land as a herd district at the request of the landowner. Kaercher stressed that the county cannot force landowners to file the petition.
Beyond encouraging landowners to do so, the county has little control over whether the land along U.S. Highway 87 is fenced, he said, adding that the effort also requires cooperation from the Chippewa Cree Tribe.
Peterson sent letters to the two nontribal landowners along the highway, instructing them how to petition the County Commission to annex their land into the existing herd district.
On Dec. 29, the County Commission sent a letter to tribal chairman Alvin Windy Boy Sr. asking for the tribe's cooperation in establishing herd districts along Highway 87.
"The Hill County Sheriff's Office has received complaints regarding animals on Highway 87," the letter said. "As much of the land surrounding Highway 87 is tribal-owned, we ask that the Rocky Boy Tribal Council work with us to assure this area is safe for travelers."
The letter outlined the efforts the county has taken to get the two private landowners to join a herd district and protect motorists from roaming livestock.
"We would like to see the tribe follow a similar course of action pursuant to your laws with regards to the tribal land," the letter said.
Windy Boy was not in his office today. Bruce Sunchild, vice chair of the tribal council, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Peterson said establishing herd districts and keeping livestock fenced is beneficial to both landowners and the public. Landowners can keep their livestock safe while protecting motorists at the same time, she said.
The woman injured in the Dec. 13 accident on U.S. Highway 87 recalled the collision as terrifying.
"We had a nice mother-daughter day of shopping, and were on our way home from Great Falls," said 56-year-old Dona Woods, who was at the wheel of a Subaru Legacy accompanied by her daughter, 28-year-old Dana Robertson.
The accident occurred just minutes from Havre.
"There was a vehicle that was dimming and brightening its lights, and I thought that maybe my brights were on," Woods said. "I looked down to check and when I looked up, I saw this horse crossing the road in front of me."
Woods said she had no time to react.
"It was heading northeast, and I hit it in the left flank. It crushed my headlights and windshield, flew over the car and hit the road again," she said.
"I slammed on the brakes and held the steering wheel," Woods said. "Even when I was at a complete stop, I kept the brakes on. I was afraid to let go of them."
The horse came to rest in the opposite lane, where it was immediately hit by a southbound truck. The horse died.
Looking down, Woods caught a glimpse of the steering wheel she was still holding.
"It was twisted into a figure eight shape," she said. "It looked a lot like a pretzel."
The force of the impact broke both bones in Woods' lower left arm. She was hospitalized for two days.
On Friday, the Hill County Sheriff's Office served a summons to Demontiney. If convicted of the misdemeanor charge, he faces up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
He could not be reached for comment today.
Peterson said livestock owners who allow livestock to graze on the highway can be charged with negligent endangerment even if their animals are not involved in accidents.
"If they had knowledge that it had happened previously and still engaged in that conduct," then they could be charged, she said.
Szudera said he believes establishing herd districts along the highway would help prevent accidents such as the one Woods was involved in.
"The goal is to keep these tragedies from happening," he said.