The “Open Range” Doctrine and Montana Motorists.

By on September 14, 2015

Montana has a long history of public policy that allows the open roaming of livestock. The vast majority of the state is governed by the “open range” concept, which permits livestock to roam on any land except that which is federally owned or which has been fenced to keep the animals out. Lesser areas of the state, such as that within municipalities and subdivisions, are classified as “closed range”.

In open range areas, if property owners want to prevent livestock from coming onto their land, they must construct fences to prevent that from happening. Many property owners, however, want livestock to graze their lands to keep down vegetation growth. If an owner’s land abuts federal properties, however, and the person has livestock, he is required to construct a fence to keep his animals off the federal land, even though he desires to have his stock roam free. In closed range areas, owners of livestock are required to confine their animals to their own property.

While the early days of ranching in Montana involved wide open spaces with little opportunity for contact between livestock and humans or their conveyors, modern Montana has transportation systems traversing the state. Accordingly, the continued free roaming of livestock is bound to result, from time to time, in collisions between vehicles and animals.

Prior to the year 2000, livestock owners in free range areas were not liable for collisions between their animals and vehicles. In 2000, however, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that stock owners were liable for vehicle accidents involving their animals. The next year, the legislature responded to the Court’s ruling by passing a law that makes livestock owners liable only if their animals’ presence on the highway was the result of gross negligence or intentional misconduct. This standard does not apply to highways that fall under the federal highway system, including certain state highways that are maintained by federal funds. In some areas, these highways are fenced, but that is not always the case.

Even though the legislature took steps to continue to protect livestock owners, these legal changes have had the practical effect of making open range areas look more like closed range. Before the Supreme Court’s ruling and legislative change, ranchers enjoyed near immunity from liability for accidents. Now, however, state law provides an opportunity for motorists to bring suit, so rather than run the risk of being sued, ranchers are more likely to fence their animals.

The attorneys at Tipp & Buley have represented clients in numerous vehicle accident cases; we understand the implications of Montana’s open and closed range laws on car accidents. Our attorneys have over 55 years of combined experience litigating cases in Western Montana. If you have been involved in a collision with roaming livestock and need representation, please call our Missoula law office at 406-549-5186 or visit us online..

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