SEPTEMBER 28TH, 2020
Contributing to the Chaos while
Living – Life – Large
In 1914 American poet Robert Frost, who was much admired for his depictions of rural life in New England, wrote the poem, Mending Wall. The gist of the poem is about the barriers people put up between themselves and others. The line in the poem, "good fences make good neighbors" means that people will get along better if they establish boundaries.
Over the years that followed, this line, “good fences make good neighbors,” grew away from establishing personal boundaries to the actual construction of fences. Perhaps even as far as if you want to be good neighbors help each other build the fence to keep what is yours in.
When the eastern states were still colonies of Great Britain, farmers were bound by the doctrine of common law. Farmers who owned animals that were likely to roam, like cattle, horses, sheep and pigs were responsible for any damage done by those animals. This made fencing necessary to keep animals in, as opposed to fencing grain or vegetable acres to keep animals out.
Things changed with the expansion of the West. When great herds of cattle were allowed to graze on the lands that once before had been the home of millions of bison. As the buffalo were slaughtered for their robes, the grass opened up for cattle.
With the introduction and expansion of these mossy horned cattle, the Open Range Doctrine was enacted, This policy allowed the rancher to let his animals roam, leaving it up to his neighbors to fence the animals out.
Now over 150 or so years later, the Open Range Doctrine is still the law and if you don’t want cattle, horses and domestic bison on the land you own, you must fence them out. However the “Fence Out” rule does not apply to sheep. Sheep must be fenced in.
A common and contentious issue for rural landowners involves disputes over trespassing livestock. Wyoming is a “fence out” state for cattle; meaning landowners who do not want to have livestock on their property are responsible for fencing them out.
Traditionally, the “Fence Out” rule is in conjunction with large amounts of government owned grazing range. Wyoming is a “Fence Out” state and so too are New Mexico, Montana, North Dakota, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon Kansas and Idaho.
When your neighbor’s stock wanders onto your unfenced private property, there are no criminal penalties and the owners of the animals are not necessarily liable for damages. However if there is a lawful fence separating the properties, the landowner can recover some damages through civil action in a local court or through arbitration. Each state has its own criteria for a lawful fence, which includes the condition of a maintained fence.
In Wyoming a lawful livestock fence is a three-strand barbed wire fence. The wire fence should consist of three strands at a minimum with a top wire height of 43 inches above the ground and space barbed wire 10 to 12 inches apart.
It is also seen as neglect and deemed a misdemeanor, with a penalty by law, to leave the gate on a lawful fence open, even if it is accidental.
Because both, the land owners will benefit, Wyoming law states that costs for building and maintaining fences may be split 50-50. Again with the “Fence Out” law there is no recourse if your neighbor doesn’t want to split the cost.
This “Fence Out” law also vaguely applies to fencing on government land. The leaseholders are responsible for the maintaining the fences, but because of the “Fence Out” law, if you neighbor these allotments and don’t want a bunch of cattle drifting onto your land, you probably need to maintain the fence yourself.
To this day, the Open Range Doctrine and the “Fence Out” law seems to have made the responsibility for maintaining fences a low priority. This is especially true on government land where is should be the opposite with what the current AUM fees are set at.
40 years ago I walked mile after mile of fence wearing Tony Lama boots with a riding heal. I thought if you were on a ranch you had to wear cowboy boots, even though they were never made for walking. This spring and summer I walked miles of fence wearing sandals that my feet graciously praised me for.
No matter what was on my feet what was with me was the ability to see each fence post that was missing a staple or a wire that was broken and needing to be spliced.
With all these miles of pounding staples and mending wire, my conclusion is, the only proper way to fix fence is on your feet. But what I’m seeing now is fencing being done with binoculars and four-wheelers with a lazy and inaccurate conclusion, “it looks good from here.”
With this also comes the neighborly communication, perhaps while leaning over the fence. Letting each other know what fence has been walked while knowing that who ever walked it, did a good job.
This copious amount of rambling and barbed words, rambling about vague laws does not hold the same tension on all the fences crisscrossing the county. Like everything some are good and some are bad. But what is happening now is there are a lot of new people joining our rural lifestyle and are not use too or aware of, “how things are.”
There is tremendous comfort and wisdom in the old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors!” - dbA