'Open range' decision not up to county
After reviewing the county's "open range" policy, the Jefferson County Commission has determined that the issue can only be decided by property owners.
Following the deaths of 44 head of black Angus cattle late in the evening of Sept. 6, when a series of semi trucks struck the animals on U.S. Highway 97, about 14 miles north of Madras, the Oregon Department of Transportation asked the commission to review its policy.
County Administrator Jeff Rasmussen told commissioners that "unless the property owner wants to be in a livestock district, there's nothing that the board of commissioners can do."
In Jefferson County, the incorporated cities of Madras, Metolius and Culver, as well as Crooked River Ranch and the Three Rivers Recreational Area are all livestock districts, but all other areas are considered open range, where livestock can run at large.
County Counsel Alexa Gassner added that under Oregon law, livestock districts are expanded by petition.
Commissioner Wayne Fording suggested that calling it "open range" is misleading. "Even though it's termed 'open range,' I've driven all over this county -- even on back roads -- and there's always a fence," he said.
"A rancher wants to know where his cows are and be able to round them up," he continued. "Even where this happened, it's fenced."
Commission Chairman John Hatfield noted that in open range areas, the responsibility for watching out for livestock lies with the driver. "If a car had been barreling through there instead of a truck, a life could have been lost," he said.
Commissioner Mike Ahern called it "a solution looking for a problem," since it's up to ranchers to set up livestock districts.
The cattle that were killed belonged to the R2 Ranch, which holds about 60,000 acres. Marvin Venter, farm ground manager, said that the ranch was in the middle of a weaning operation when something caused the young cattle to break through the fence.
Venter said that there have been other incidents at that location, because there are guard rails on both sides of the highway -- which prevent the cattle or other animals from getting off the highway. The location is near their feed lot.
"Personally, I think that ODOT needs to acknowledge the situation," he said, adding that the ranch had taken responsibility for cleaning up the highway.