- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2003

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 back yard, he got his .22-caliber rifle and fired.

A pregnant cow fell to the ground kicking, and died by Mr. Knudson’s shed.

Problem was, Mr. Knudson had 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, Mr. Knudson has gained supporters and lost friends, nasty letters have been written to local newspapers, and the shooting has prompted a debate about whether open-range laws are too outdated for the new, more-urban West.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 Mr. 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.

Mr. Knudson, a free-lance 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 earlier when 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 or her wish; the owner of the cattle has no obligation to restrain the 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 five counties.

East of Colorado, the country long ago did away with giving cows freedom to 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. They mean that the driver, not the rancher, is liable for hitting a cow with a vehicle. Near Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming warns tourists to expect cows wandering on the highway.

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.

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 Stockgrowers Association. “It ain’t broke.”

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