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Legally Speaking


Issue: April, 2006
Author: George G. Johnson, Jr.

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Trends in Livestock Law

Throughout the West rather drastic change is the norm. We old-timers shake our heads to see what is happening to familiar country and people. Ranches and farms are becoming subdivided for urban or suburban developments. Fields and pastures are being replaced with acres of look-alike roofs and houses. Populations are growing and new demands are being made on land and resources by these changes. Traditional uses of agricultural resources are changing including water uses, weed and pest control, dust abatement, and the keeping of livestock.

Often new suburban populations are initially attracted to the “Western” or “Rural” lifestyles with the accompanying traditions that are historically appealing. Residents seek to rekindle childhood dreams and fantasies of cowboys, horses and wide-open spaces. However, the resulting proximity of new populations to actual agricultural operations has created a number of legal problems that require recognition by legal practitioners. Land use by farmers and ranchers often creates what former suburbanites find to be offensive. Spring plowing or cultivation can create dust. Spraying of crops can strike fear by creating a dangerous and unhealthy environment. Livestock operations, by their nature, can create odors, attract insects, affect water quality, and present danger for the animals themselves. In short, the stage is set for legal confrontation between these competing forces.

Obviously rural versus urban issues are too numerous to cover here, so this article will address situations involving livestock, which include cattle, sheep, goats, llamas, and horses.

The laws dealing with liabilities and/or responsibilities involving “livestock” are found in a variety of areas. Common zoning and land use statutes and ordinances address many areas directly relating to the keeping of livestock. Numbers of animal units per acre are often included in zoning laws as are related areas, including confinement requirements, weed abatement or control standards, dust control, and similar subjects. These laws are not always statewide, but the trend in many areas is to zone entire counties. More urbanized areas have stricter and more controlling zoning and related laws. In advising clients who are purchasing or selling land, seeking to change the nature of use by initially having livestock on a tract of land, ranchers whose neighborhoods are changing because of development, and other such situations, lawyers must be keenly aware of the scope, restrictions, and prohibitions of applicable zoning laws.

A phenomenon that is happening across rural America is the ownership and use of land by hobbyists. Understandably people are growing weary of the pressures common to living in cities. Crime, pollution, crowds, costs, and “treadmill” urban existences are leading more people to turn to the country lifestyle. Larger farms and ranches are being divided into smaller tracts and are marketed to fit the need of refugees from cities. Included in the plans of these newcomers is usually to place horses, and perhaps cattle, sheep, or other farm animals on their property. In addition to complying with applicable zoning and animal welfare laws, these new hobby ranchers are subject to the legal requirements of animal liability laws and statutes as they relate to duties owed to neighbors. Also, existing ranchers and farmers must be made aware of changes in their duties to their new neighbors relating to the inherent hazards of their livestock operations. Attorneys must advise clients who own livestock that they must be more vigilant in preventing problems and situations that foreseeably could be caused by their animals. Methods of management must be evaluated in view of the changing character of the neighborhood. The former laissez- faire use of the available hundreds or thousands of acres has gone the way of open range and the cattle drive. Ranchers and farmers must adapt their businesses to the reality of co-existence with a greater intensity of people and diverse lifestyles. They must know that they are now more vulnerable to legal problems due to the more intense concentration of people. Ranchers must take steps to protect themselves and their property from this increased exposure to liability and loss.

On the other hand, lawyers representing hobby ranchers should advise their clients about applicable animal welfare laws, the duties legally imposed on them to confine their animals, and to the proper care and maintaince of their property. Inexperienced livestock owners should be advised that their fences should be adequate and in good repair to protect both the members of the public and their investment in the animals. They must know that very little land in the West is adequate to meet the nutritional needs of their livestock, and that additional feed and water is necessary. They must be informed that animal ownership imposes on them new restrictions and obligations. Animal care is constant and cannot be done only when it is convenient. New rural inhabitants need to know that they must practice proper land management regarding dust, noxious weeds, overgrazing, water runoff and practices that are hazardous. In addition to orienting hobby ranchers to their duties and responsibilities to their neighbors, lawyers should inform these clients of such things as the legal requirements for transferring ownership of livestock, including brand inspections, health certificates, bills of sale, and veterinary certificates. In short, the newcomers must be made to think like the veteran rancher or farmer, at least where animals and the supporting land are involved.

Attorneys who counsel clients involved in the ownership and keeping of livestock, whether the owners are new or seasoned, must be familiar with a number of areas to insure adequate representation. Among other areas, they should know the legal requirements of transfer and identification of animals, health and vaccination laws, and confined animal regulations. In addition, lawyers in this area should be familiar with animal welfare laws, state and federal regulations concerning predator control, and laws regarding disposal of dead large animals. Experience has taught that adequate records should be kept on animals from the acquisition to termination of ownership. This is very important for a number of reasons including taxes. Clients should be advised that statutes purporting to provide protection from suits for injuries to others by animals, especially horses, such as the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act (Wyo. Stat. §§ 1-1-121, et seq.) are not a prudent substitute for adequate liability insurance.

In summary, our complex society has spawned in many people a desire to return to a simpler and more basic time. Seeking a closer communication with nature, both animal and land, is a burning quest for a growing number of individuals. As these people realize their desire to live a more rural life, the lawyer’s role as counselor and advisor includes not only traditional legal services but also being able to address practical considerations involving the ownership of livestock. It will be incumbent on attorneys to either know these areas or be able to refer clients to knowledgeable persons. Helping the client attain his or her reasonable and legal goals has long been the obligation of the lawyer. Now, at least in the area of livestock ownership, attorneys will have to expand their own knowledge to achieve this goal.

George G. Johnson, Jr., has been practicing law in Denver for over 40 years. He is Of-Counsel to The Johnson Law Firm LLC, in Denver, Colorado. He has emphasized equine and agricultural law in his practice which has led to vast experience in litigation (both trial and appellate), along with contact, financial, and business law. Johnson has written two books on equine law, Horsemen's Guide to Legal Issues (1993), and The Ultimate Equine Legal & Business Advisor (co-authored with Tracy Dowson, 2003). He has also authored numerous magazine articles and newspaper columns dealing with the various legal aspects of horse and livestock law. He is licensed to practice law in Colorado, Texas, and the Supreme Court of the United States and presently serves as Judge & Stewards Commissioner of the Arabian Horse Association.

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