In many parts of Eastern Oregon, livestock animals are venturing far and wide in search of their next meal, sometimes onto the property of an unsuspecting landowner. The result has already led to tragic and unfortunate consequences.
"Our conditions east of the Cascades will continue to cause animals to be out of the pasture sooner and looking for better quality feed in a neighbor's field," says Rodger Huffman, manager of the Oregon Department of Agriculture's Animal Identification Program.
Fire the past two years has destroyed fencing and other structures in some locations of Eastern Oregon that normally would keep livestock in secured areas.
A general lack of moisture this summer has caused the range grasses and other feed sources to be less than adequate in terms of volume and quality.
That combination of conditions has created greater potential for livestock to stray greater distances. Even in areas of open range, it is leading to possible conflict.
"There is a perception that anybody else's animals that encroach on your private property are trespassing, and that's where the rub is," says Huffman.
Last month, a La Grande doctor was charged with seven counts of aggravated animal abuse and first degree criminal mischief after allegedly shooting seven cows– killing six of them– that had come onto his property.
The area, once classified as open range, had been designated as a livestock district, creating a closed range area. Technically, the animals were trespassing but there is no justification for shooting the animals, even in a livestock district.
"For a landowner to take that kind of action is unacceptable," says Huffman. "There are other avenues to resolve the issue."
The incident underscores the confusion that comes from not understanding Oregon's open range law and a person's responsibility to either keep livestock fenced in or fenced out. Open range allows livestock to lawfully run at-large. The burden is on property owners to keep them out rather than livestock owners to keep them in.
"People in open range areas that don't want livestock animals in their yards or gardens, the law doesn't say they must fence those animals out, but it infers it," says Huffman. "If you have not constructed an adequate fence, then an animal that comes onto your land is not trespassing. If it was deemed by us to be an ‘adequate' fence and somehow the animal breached it, that's a different story."
For those who live in a livestock district, or closed range, the owner of the animals is required to keep them on their property.
With more people moving to the countryside from urban areas, there is often a lack of understanding when it comes to who is required to do what.
"Just because it appears to be a residential area doesn't necessarily mean it isn't open range," says Huffman. "When animals wander into an urban-rural interface, they may be in open range and there may not be anything unlawful about what is happening."
Huffman suggests if there is any question, property owners should find out whether they live in open range or in a livestock district.
Three counties -– Grant, Harney, and Lake -– are entirely open range, meaning livestock can run at-large in all areas except for incorporated cities.
Ten counties, mostly on the west side of the state, are classified entirely as livestock districts and the owner must keep animals confined to their property. Those counties include Benton, Clackamas, Clatsop, Coos, Gilliam, Hood River, Multnomah, Polk, Sherman and Tillamook.
The other 23 counties are a combination of open range and livestock districts. The county clerk or ODA can provide detailed descriptions of open range areas and livestock districts.
Knowing the type of range, open or closed, will be helpful in knowing how to handle livestock that wanders onto someone else's property.
In a livestock district, such as the one in which the La Grande doctor allegedly shot the estray animals, it's recommended to contact the livestock owner if the identity is known.
Frequent problems can be addressed in civil or criminal court. If the owner is not known, ODA should be contacted so that a brand inspector can help identify ownership. Ultimately, the county sheriff's office could get involved to issue citations for animals at-large.
"You can try to run the animals off your property, even if it's open range, but again– there is nothing unlawful about the encroaching animals in open range if there wasn't adequate fencing," says Huffman. "When possible, the animals should be contained by the property owner. We aren't in the business of rounding up livestock, but we can help determine ownership and will help people resolve the issue."
Huffman says the bulk of livestock producers are sensitive and responsive to instances when animals are causing damage to other people's property, whether it's in a livestock district or open range.
"The best advice is to try and be tolerant if the animals are on your property. If you can't find the owner, contain the animals and call an ODA brand inspector."
ODA's Animal Identification Program can be contacted at (503) 986-4680.
This time of year, the occurrence of livestock on someone else's property is practically daily. ODA gets involved several times a week. Because grass production and range conditions are down significantly in many areas of Eastern Oregon, livestock animals are seeking out other food sources earlier than normal. Huffman is anxious to reach out to those people who may come in contact with a wayward cattle, sheep, equine, or goats.
"Realize that animals will sometimes end up where they shouldn't be. It is not unlawful to chase them off your property but it is unlawful to cause them harm."
For more information, visit http://www.oregon.gov/ODA/AHID/pages/livestock_id/openclosed_range.aspx