Last summer I stood on my front porch and looked out onto the county road in front of my home. Standing in the middle of the road was a lone Holstein heifer. I chuckled, happy that for once it was not my cow. I then hollered at my kids and we walked out to the road. There were no cars on the road, so we gently walked the heifer back to our neighbor’s property and put her in an empty corral.
In many parts of Idaho cows, horses and sheep have as much right to be on the road as a car. Idaho is an “open range” state. Idaho law defines “open range” as all uninclosed lands outside of cities, villages and herd districts, upon which cattle by custom, license, lease or permit, are grazed or permitted to roam. Idaho Code § 25-2118. In an open range, livestock may roam freely. If you live in an open range, you are responsible to “fence out” livestock if you want to keep range animals off of your property (and your front porch).
In open range areas cattle and other animals may be grazing on or near a road or highway. Owners of domestic animals are not liable or negligent when their animals cause a highway collision in “open range” or when the animals are “lawfully on any highway.” In fact, you may be legally responsible for paying for dead or injured animals that you hit with your vehicle in an open range.
Within a city, or a herd district, an animal owner has a duty under the law to fence in animals and keep them off of a highway. However, if an animal is on a highway, and an accident occurs, the owner is not strictly liable. The law looks to the actions of the owner of the animal to determine whether the owner was negligent in allowing an animal to wander onto a highway or roadway. For example, did the owner fail to close a gate, or did the owner fail to erect a lawful fence that would contain livestock? In the latter case, the owner may be negligent and responsible for any accidents or injuries that result.
As for my neighbor’s cows, we live outside of city limits and outside of a herd district. So maybe my neighbor intended for his cow to be out on the road… I’ll have to ask.
– Lance J. Schuster is a lawyer at Beard St. Clair Gaffney. He and his wife raise kids and cattle on their small farm near Idaho Falls. He can be reached at 523-5171 or firstname.lastname@example.org