AR-News: Cow Shooting Sparks Debate Over Open Range Laws
wolffnm at yahoo.com
Sun Sep 14 15:34:58 EDT 2003
Cow shooting sparks debate over remnant of Old West:
SNOWFLAKE, Ariz. (AP) _ Kent Knudson had been fed up
with cows wandering onto his property for years. So
when he came home one afternoon and found a herd in
his back yard, he promptly got his .22-caliber rifle
A red-and-white pregnant cow fell to the ground
kicking, and died by Knudson's shed.
Problem was, Knudson violated open-range law, a
remnant of the Old West. And he learned the hard way
that cows still rule the range: He was handcuffed and
jailed, charged with a felony.
Since that day in January, Knudson has gained
supporters and lost friends, nasty letters have been
written to local newspapers and the shooting has
opened up a new debate about whether open-range laws
are too outdated for the new, more urban West.
``You're really dealing with the Old West crashing
into the New West,'' said Courtney White, executive
director of the Quivira Coalition, a Santa Fe,
N.M.-based group that helps ranchers and
environmentalists work together.
``The old days, the cows just wandered around.
One-hundred years ago that was fine. Today it's a
The way Knudson tells it, he didn't really mean to
kill the cow. But he does admit aiming at the herd on
Jan. 15 after the animals trampled his septic line and
ate his plants and trees. He said he was just
protecting himself and his 77-year-old mother, who
suffers from Alzheimer's disease.
Knudson, a freelance photographer, has a fence to keep
cattle out, but had forgotten to close his gate when
he rushed his mother to the hospital three days before
because she had a mild stroke.
Under open-range law, cattle can roam and graze at
will. It is up to the property owner to fence out
cattle if that is his wish; the owner of the cattle
has no obligation to restrain his cows.
Thirteen Western states have some form of open-range
law, most similar to Arizona's. California has the
most limited, with open range only in six counties.
East of Colorado, the rest of the country long ago did
away with giving cows free roam, but open range has
remained prominent in the West as a relic of the past,
when cattle easily outnumbered people and it made
sense to let them wander. Parts of the West do have
so-called ``no-fence districts,'' where landowners
petition local governments to require ranchers to
fence in their cattle in certain areas.
Across the West, yellow signs warn of open-range
territory along roads and highways, and mean the
driver, not the rancher, is liable for hitting a cow
with a vehicle. Near Yellowstone National Park,
Wyoming adds a definition for tourists, warning that
they should expect cows wandering on the highway.
``Some of these laws are so backward,'' said Greg
Schneider, a member of RangeNet, a group trying to
change cattle grazing laws.
``People didn't care about it in the past because it
wasn't impacting them,'' he said. ``But that's
changing, because of the population changing, people
becoming more mobile and living farther out....''
Home on the range has gotten a lot more crowded as the
West undergoes a huge population boom. From 1990 to
2000, the region had the largest growth in the country
_ 19.7 percent, to 63.2 million people. As the
population increases and new residents move into rural
areas, open-range laws have gotten more attention _
and more controversy.
Ranchers, fiercely protective of their cowboy way of
life, resist any suggestion that they should cave in
to the changing of the times.
``If it ain't broke, don't fix it,'' said Steve
Pilcher, executive vice president for the Montana
Stockgrower's Association. ``It ain't broke.''
In Montana, where cattle still outnumber people, a
case involving a woman injured when her car struck a
cow prompted the state Supreme Court to rule in
December 2000 that ranchers were not exempt from
liability if their livestock roamed onto roads.
Ranchers cringed, fearing their beloved open-range was
changing. But within a few months the Legislature
passed a new law declaring that a livestock owner is
not responsible for damages in such cases, barring
``Open-range has been that concept, whether you agree
with it or not, that has been the code of the West for
50, 75 years. It's always been accepted,'' Pilcher
He and other ranchers argue that changing the laws to
require ranchers to fence in their property would cost
too much and likely put them out of business.
A few miles outside Snowflake, a small Mormon
community in northeastern Arizona, Knudson, 53, steps
off his back porch in rural Navajo County and leads
the way to the scene of the crime. He gestures to the
patches of dirt and trees, where he said he found
about 30 cows that January afternoon, then points
toward his shed.
``The cow died right there, right in front,'' he said.
Knudson doesn't understand why he shouldn't be allowed
to protect his property, his mother and himself.
Despite living here off and on since grade school, he
said he didn't know he would get in trouble for
shooting cows on his property.
``I can't have cattle running around in here,'' he
said. ``I tried to get them out, tried to shoo them
out and it wasn't working. I had to get the cattle
Hence his decision to use a rifle. He said he called
the cows' owner, rancher Dee Johnson, before he fired
shots, but Johnson wasn't home at the time and he left
a message with Johnson's wife. The next morning,
Johnson, 64, called Knudson and was told one of his
cows was dead.
``I said, it's dead from what? He said it either broke
his neck or I shot it,'' Johnson said. ``I said if you
shot it, we're on opposite sides of the issue.''
After a sheriff's deputy investigated, Knudson was
handcuffed and hauled off to jail, charged with
unlawful killing of another's livestock. He has
pleaded innocent, and the case is scheduled to go to
trial in November. If convicted, he faces up to two
years in prison.
Knudson started firing off e-mails and letters,
insisting he was wronged and that the laws must be
He ended up losing a few close friends who thought he
shouldn't be so vocal, but did gain sympathetic
supporters who were just as frustrated.
``We don't want open grazing anymore,'' said Penny
Leslie, 61, who lives on 500 acres of land outside
nearby Show Low and said cattle have trampled her
fence. ``Do away with it.''
After Leslie heard about Knudson's case, she started
going door-to-door, getting phone numbers and opinions
on the open-range law. She made a list of neighbors
who have had run-ins with cattle _ farm equipment
destroyed, cattle running down fences, dogs killed by
ranchers _ and hopes it will help change Arizona's
But ranchers say Knudson and his group just don't
understand the ways of the West.
Johnson said it doesn't make sense to modify
open-range laws, mainly because the West has so much
open space even with a growing population.
``It isn't practical and it wouldn't work,'' he said.
That's mostly because of the makeup of the West. It
has far more state and federal land than the rest of
the country and it takes more land to run cattle
because of the dry climate.
``We think all people should respect the fence laws
that are in place,'' said Jeff Eisenberg, director of
public lands council for the National Cattlemen's Beef
Association. ``Whether or not they need to be updated,
there's nothing about this story that suggests why
they would have to be.''
``Mostly everybody I know, they're sick of hearing
about it,'' said Carroll Cox, editor of the
Snowflake-Taylor Pioneer newspaper, Knudson's hometown
The newspaper as well as the White Mountain
Independent in Show Low have published testy letters
on both sides of the issue.
``Why don't you take your medicine like a man?'' a
reader wrote in the Snowflake paper in reference to
Knudson. ``Why don't you just stop all this
nonsense?'' another wrote to the White Mountain
``It's obviously stirred up a group to continue
writing,'' said publisher Greg Tock. ``It's kept the
letters to the editor coming in.''
Knudson isn't stopping at letters to the editor. He
plans to lobby the Arizona Legislature and Congress,
and says he will not accept a plea bargain in the case
against him. He vows an appeal if convicted.
``I guess the question for the 21st century is, should
a black cow at midnight have more right to a highway
than a person?'' asked Andy Kerr, director of the
National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, which is
trying to get Congress to pay ranchers to give up
federal grazing permits.
``These laws have been on the books since before Henry
Ford invented the automobile. How fast could you go in
a horse and buggy? The law hasn't kept up with
reality. Open-range laws may have made sense in the
1800s, but they don't make a lot of sense today,''
But updating a remnant of the Old West will likely
take more than Knudson's grassroots effort. After all,
ranching and the cowboy lifestyle are part of the
``All of the things that people think about in the
West, what's the first thing people think about?
Ranches and cowboys,'' said Doc Lane, director of
natural resources for the Arizona Cattlemen's
``It happens to provide one heck of a lot of money for
this nation. The public ought to think about that. All
we want is the opportunity to make a profit. We're not
Terence J. Centner, a professor of agricultural and
applied economics at the University of Georgia, has
written several articles about open-range laws and the
need for reform, but doubts serious change will come
``People don't like change, and they don't like to
change laws,'' he said. ``It would be very difficult
to change these laws. That's what they've grown up
For now, Knudson continues to write his letters and
e-mails, always ending them with his motto: ``Cage
cattle, not people.''
He knows now what can happen on the open range in the
West. And he hasn't closed his gate since.
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Angie Wagner is the AP's Western
regional writer, based in Las Vegas.
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