It is raining late at night and a driver is speeding down state Highway 6 a few miles south of Harvard.
He spots a black cow in the right lane.
The collision is unavoidable.
If the accident occurred in open range, the driver would be responsible for reimbursing the owner of the cow. And the driver, not the animal’s owner, would also on the hook for paying for the damages to his car.
Latah County Sheriff Richie Skiles estimates there are five or six such collisions annually on Latah County highways. Most occur on state highways 6 and 9, and some result in human injuries, he said.
Idaho law states domestic animal owners in open range are not responsible for keeping the animals off highways and are not liable for damage to vehicles or for injuries to drivers and passengers in the event of a vehicle-animal collision. Open range, according to statute, includes unenclosed lands outside of cities, villages and herd districts, upon which cattle by custom, license, lease or permit are grazed or permitted to roam.
Herd districts, or closed range, require animal owners to construct and maintain fences to keep their livestock on their property. In open range, landowners can construct a fence to keep animals off their property.
Most of Latah County operates under open range, including much of the northeastern and eastern regions of the county. Areas east of Potlatch and north, east and southeast of Deary consist of open range. The remainder of the county is comprised of herd districts.
Some residents would like to see changes made to open range laws or the county converted into closed range, but, Skiles said, that is not likely to happen anytime soon due to the high cost of installing fences and the fact that there are several cattle owners in Idaho politics.
“Putting up a fence now would just be astronomical in expense,” Skiles said.
Skiles said he has met with Latah County Prosecuting Attorney Bill Thompson and state Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy to discuss open range and herd districts, and he is hopeful that laws can eventually be amended, at minimum, to where drivers will not be responsible for reimbursing cattle owners for the cost of animals killed on roads.
Keith Feldman, who owns cattle in open range outside Bovill and in herd districts outside Troy, said converting the county’s open range to herd districts is not economically viable.
“If we would have to basically fence in all of our cattle up there where I am in the open range, you can no longer afford to run cattle up there,” Feldman said. “I can’t even guess how many miles of fence (Latah County open range ranchers) would have to build.”
Even in open range, Feldman said he tries to keep his cattle on his property because he does not want drivers or animals to be harmed, however, he added, motorists should always be aware if they are in open range that cattle can enter the roadway at anytime.
“It boils down to people just need to pay attention like they used to instead of driving like the devil,” Feldman said.
He said Latah County’s highways need to have more open range signs to alert drivers of possible cattle on the road.
“All my life I thought this needs to be signed better so people are aware, because if they are not aware, it even makes it more dangerous,” he said.
Skiles said he hears many complaints from Latah County residents who want cattle owners to keep their herds off the highways and other private property. He said residents also complain when they are given the bill to reimburse the value of the cow struck by a vehicle.
Skiles said he believes the open range law is outdated now that there are more cars on the road driving at higher speeds.
“We’re driving down the highway at 60, 70 miles an hour, so it’s just dangerous now to hit a cow,” Skiles said. “People get hurt, people get killed, you have damage, you have to pay for these things.”
Skiles said it should not be the driver’s responsibility to pay for a cow that is struck by a vehicle. The driver is also responsible for the damages to his car and injuries he or she may sustain.
“It’s kind of tough on somebody who doesn’t have very much to begin with,” Skiles said.
Latah County Commissioner Dave McGraw is among those who would like to see Latah County as closed range. He believes cattle roaming on other residents’ property is an issue, but there is a greater danger when cows enter highways.
Latah County residents Gary Morris and Dallas Sexton spoke with the McGraw and his fellow Latah County Commissioners earlier this month about open range laws. Both are concerned about drivers’ safety.
Morris, a Princeton resident who served as a Latah County Commissioner from 1975 to 1981, said he would like to see the county converted into herd districts.
Sexton and Morris said they would like to see cattle owners fence their livestock so they do not roam onto other residents’ land.
“I think people need to be responsible for their animals and their actions,” Sexton said.
Sexton said open range cows have ventured to his front yard and near his shop, and the only way for the animals to stroll to his property is to first cross a road.
Morris said he owned cattle for about 60 years and tried his best to keep them on his property. He said it takes great effort because if the cattle’s hay becomes scarce, they tend to migrate to other areas for food.
“Our main goal is making it safer to drive on the highways where the cattle are,” Morris said. “I’m sympathetic with cattlemen, I really am, but I’m also sympathetic with the people on the roads for safety sake.”