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Urban West Collides With Wild West

September 14, 2003|Angie Wagner | Associated Press Writer

SNOWFLAKE, Ariz. — 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 backyard, he got his .22-caliber rifle and fired.

A red-and-white pregnant cow fell to the ground, kicking. She died by Knudson's shed.

Problem was, Knudson violated the open-range law, a remnant of the Old West. And he learned the hard way that cows still rule the range: He was handcuffed, jailed and 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have been written to local newspapers and the shooting has initiated a debate about whether open-range laws are too outdated for the new, more urban West.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 problem."


The way Knudson tells it, he didn't intend 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 says he was just protecting himself and his 77-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer's disease.

Knudson, a freelance photographer, has a fence to keep cattle out. But he had forgotten to close the gate three days earlier when he rushed his mother to the hospital after she had a mild stroke. When he confronted the cattle, he was bringing his mother home.

Under open-range law, cattle can roam and graze at will. The property owner may fence out cattle if that is his wish, but the owner of the cattle has no obligation to restrain his herd.

Thirteen Western states have some form of open-range law, most similar to Arizona's. At least six California counties have open-range rules -- Kern, Trinity, Shasta, Siskiyou, Lassen and Modoc.

East of Colorado, the rest of the country long ago did away with giving cows the freedom to roam. But open range has remained prominent in the West, a relic of the past when cattle 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.

Throughout the West, yellow signs warn of open-range territory along roads and highways. The signs mean that 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 to wander 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%, to 63.2 million people. As the population increases and new residents move into rural areas, open-range laws have attracted 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 times.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," said Steve Pilcher, executive vice president for the Montana Stockgrower's Assn. "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 for their beloved open range. But within a few months the Legislature passed a law declaring that a livestock owner is not responsible for damages in such cases, barring gross negligence.

"Open range has been that concept, whether you agree with it or not, that has been the code of the West.... It's always been accepted," Pilcher said.

He and other ranchers argue that changing the laws to require ranchers to fence in their property would cost too much and probably put them out of business.


A few miles outside Snowflake, a small Mormon community in northeastern Arizona, Knudson, 53, stepped off his back porch in rural Navajo County and led the way to the scene of the shooting. He gestured to the patches of dirt and trees, where he said he found about 30 cows that January afternoon, then pointed 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. Although he'd lived here off and on since grade school, he said he didn't know he would get in trouble for shooting cows on his property.

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