"The Open Range"...That's Still A Thing?


SOMEWHERE IN NEVADA- Driving through the vast stretch of empty land some call state of Nevada, you’ll periodically come across large, yellow, diamond-shaped signs, emblazoned with the silhouette of a raging bull, labeled “Open Range”. To most east-coasters unfamiliar with the expanse of desert and prairie in the American West, it will make you do a double take. It sure made me look twice


We are used to property that is strictly accounted for—it is legally yours or mine, and it’s our responsibility to keep that property on our person at all times. There’s no such thing as the “open range”; that’s a vestige from folk songs of the late 19th century. Isn’t it?


After doing a little digging, I found that this isn’t the case—the Open Range is still alive and well in certain sparsely populated areas of the American West. Laws in eastern states don’t conform to this Open Range nonsense—we have “herd districts”. Herd districts put the onus on the owner of livestock to fence in their cattle, keeping them on their property, which is pretty much considered common sense law in this day and age. Open Range districts, on the other hand, espouse a converse doctrine: cattle are allowed to roam freely on land regardless of who owns it, and landowners wanting to keep cattle out must erect their own fencing to do so. It’s a law left over from the days of homesteading, where unclaimed land abounded freely and it was easier to fence in the small tracts of lands where cattle where unwanted. Ranchers had neither the technology, nor the capital, to devote such resources to fencing in their own cattle.


This raises an interesting question. I first took note of the Open Range because I drove through one. Whose responsibility is it when a car hits a cow on the Open Range? The answer varies from state to state—in Idaho, for example, the driver is responsible for the damage to the car, and damages to the rancher for the cow. Beware driving out on the open range in the Potato State.


Other states have deemed the ranchers to be liable when there’s a collision.


Another query arises when you consider driving through the Open Range…how can vehicles pass through the open range, but cattle cannot? An ingenious device called a cattle guard, a metal grating laid across the road, in effect linking the barbed wire fences that delineate the boundaries of the Open Range, solves this problem. Cars can pass over cattle guards with no problem—you barely even notice the bump when you fly over them at 80mph—but the cattle won’t. They might take one or two steps over it, but their hooves quickly recognize that this is a foreign object, and they’ll retreat to the safety of the prairie—and the Open Range.


While America has largely barreled into the twenty-first century, tweeting, gaming, politicizing, hash-tagging and selfie-taking, there is a good portion of the country that still likes to do things the good ol’ way. A perfect example of this is the Open Range—yes, it still exists.


Disclaimer: This photo is not mine, and was taken from Wikipedia. Link here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2014-07-28_07_59_32_Open_Range_sign_along_westbound_Nevada_State_Route_722_(Carroll_Summit_Road)_about_41.1_miles_east_of_the_Churchill_County_line_in_Lander_County,_Nevada.JPG