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Homes on the range: Bill would help property owners when cattle wander

SIERRA VISTA – When Angela Moreno moved from suburban Phoenix to her dream home in the wide-open spaces near this southeastern Arizona city she expected a less-stressful life.

Instead, Moreno and her husband, David, have encountered a rural nightmare. She said a bull owned by a local rancher has terrorized her and others in her neighborhood since last summer.

Moreno said she first encountered the bull when it charged her car while she was in it. It leaped over a 4-foot fence and ate her vegetable garden, and then it tore through a 6-foot-high chain-link fence, she said.

Then Morenos tried an electric fence, but it didn't even faze the bull, she said.

"My husband stood there with a hose to try and give him some more electrocution, but he only stumbled," Moreno said.

State Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, said plight faced by the Morenos and others prompted him to introduce legislation aimed at making it easier for property owners to recover damages when cattle wander off open range and encourage ranchers to prevent intrusions.

HB 2127 would make it a Class 2 misdemeanor for owners to knowingly or unknowingly allow cattle to venture without permission onto private property. Current state law has that provision only for sheep and goats.

The bill also would remove a requirement that property owners living next to open range must have installed a 50-inch-high barbed wire fence to seek damages from ranchers whose livestock wander. Property owners could collect whether or not they put up fences.

"Other livestock don't have such a big loophole," Patterson said in an interview.

Cattle can roam freely in designated no-fence districts. These districts, often referred to as open range, are located in unincorporated areas.

This is Patterson's second attempt to push through legislation that he said would modernize Arizona's law on open ranges.

"This law is about as close to a relic as it gets," Patterson said.

Basilio Aja, a lobbyist for the Arizona Cattlemen's Association, said the real problem is people purchasing small parcels of land in designated open range areas without reading the details of their deeds. Landowners can petition to remove areas from the no-fence districts; that requires 50 percent plus one of property owners signatures in the petitioning area, Aja said.

"I think it is pretty clear in Arizona that people love their open spaces," Aja said. "They are protected, but they have to take action."

Tom Cox, the rancher whose bull allegedly caused trouble for the Morenos and their neighbors, said cattle come with moving onto the range. His ranch, which he bought in 1991, has been around since the 1800s.

"If they don't want what happens out in the country then why did they move here," Cox said.

Gary Thrasher, a Sierra Vista rancher and veterinarian, said there has been a lot of confusion over the open range law as development pushes into the countryside.

"It is almost impossible to fence in all of these lands," Thrasher said.

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Angela Moreno said she and her husband spent more than $1,000 replacing and installing fences to unsuccessfully keep cattle out. For now, they've nowhere to turn for compensation.

"We would love to see changes, even small ones," she said.

Patterson, whose bill had yet to be scheduled for committee action, said he understands that growth contributes to the problem, adding that said he'd like to work with all parties on a solution.

"I am just trying to figure out the most fair way to solve this," he said.

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Tara Alatorre/Cronkite News Service

Angela Moreno, who lives on the outskirts of Sierra Vista, explains how a wayward bull ripped her fence off of the posts to graze in her lawn. A state lawmaker has introduced a bill to help people in her position recover damages from ranchers.

Key facts about HB 2127

  • Sponsor: Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson.
  • Wandering Livestock: Makes it a misdemeanor offense for an owner to knowingly or unknowingly allow cattle to wander onto private property.
  • Allows property owners to recover damages from a rancher even if they haven't put up a fence to keep cattle from wandering off open range.
  • Courts may place liens on cattle and order them sold to pay off damages.