By Alan Burkhart
With so many different issues facing American society these days it’s easy to let a few of them slip through the cracks – until one of them hits close to home. Those good folks in New London, CT probably never thought about eminent domain abuse until they found out their homes were being stolen by the city government. Few parents in Texas were aware of the fact of their children’s school records being public domain information, until concerns of pedophiles brought the issue to the forefront.
And me? I’d have never given a moment’s thought to the Open Range laws in some western states if not for making a friend who is under attack for defending his home and family against a greedy rancher. Now that friend is facing felony charges and could end up in prison.
In 2003, Kent Knudson of Snowflake, AZ rushed his mother to the hospital when she suffered a stroke. In his haste to get medical care for his mom, who was an Alzheimer’s patient, he forgot to close the gate to his property. When he returned three days later, approximately 30 cows belonging to a nearby rancher were in his yard. They had broken a sewer line, trampled his garden, and left a mine field of “cow patties” all over his property.
Kent called the rancher, Dee Johnson, and asked him for assistance. Johnson essentially dismissed Kent’s request and told him that it would be the next day before he could remove his cattle. Kent went back outside and tried to shoo the cattle through the gate without success. He then fired warning shots with a .22 caliber rifle. He had no intention of killing or injuring any of the cows, which is why he was using such a small-caliber gun. Kent has larger guns.
Perhaps it was an untimely coincidence. Perhaps the gunshot frightened the cow to death. Whatever the reason, one of the cows fell dead on the spot. The cow had a bullet in its lung. According to Kent the bullet doesn’t match his gun. I would tend to agree, since it’d be just about impossible to kill a grown cow with so small a gun. You’d have to poke the muzzle in its ear or eye and pull the trigger. A .22 caliber slug simply isn’t capable of journeying all the way into the lung of so large an animal.
That doesn’t seem to matter to the authorities or the rancher. Kent’s attorneys have made every effort to pay for the cow and settle the case, but these people evidently plan to make an example of him. His trial is finally taking place December 21st. He faces a possible 2 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. And since this is a felony, he could also lose his voting rights.
Let’s consider this objectively. While I can understand his distress over his mother’s condition, he should have remembered to close the gate. And, perhaps it was a bit imprudent to fire the gun near the cattle. But does he deserve to go to prison for such a thing? Kent Knudson isn’t a raging extremist with an arsenal in his home. He’s a mild-mannered amateur photographer who has spent years caring for his disabled mother.
The real question here should be whether the archaic Open Range laws are still practical in modern times. With the exception of Montana, all of the states that have Open Range laws currently contain more people than cattle. Automobiles travel much faster than sixty or seventy years ago. People also do more nighttime driving. Should a Black Angus bull have the right of way at midnight on a busy highway? Where is the consideration for people? A 2000 pound Angus bull, struck at 60 mph by the average automobile could wipe out an entire family.
The state of Montana recently passed a new law amending existing legislation. This new legislation reaffirms existing law stating that except in cases of intentional neglect or abuse, a livestock owner has no duty to keep his cows and horses off public highways. So, if you manage to survive a collision with a horse, you’re not only without a vehicle… you also bought yourself a dead horse.
There is, finally, some hope on the horizon. In September of 2005 a series of livestock-related accidents has prompted residents of Maricopa County, Arizona to demand changes in the Open range laws there. Beginning in 2006, a 20 square mile area of that county will not allow Open Range grazing due to the density of the human population. One can only hope that people in other areas will see this bit of progress and demand similar changes. In Arizona, cattle owners are outnumbered by “non-cattle owners” by a ratio of 5000 to 1. Does it make sense that this tiny minority should be able to endanger so many people?
The very idea of people dying in crashes to save ranchers a few bucks in fence-building money is beyond offensive. It’s both vulgar and profane. The Wild West needs to join the 21st Century.