You decide to take a leisurely drive across Montana exploring the backroads.  You find a pristine area, no fences, sparse houses and cattle grazing everywhere.  You look up, and BOOM, you just hit a cow.  Your car is a mess and so is the cow.

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Who is responsible?  Is it you and your insurance or the rancher and his insurance?  After all, you just cost that rancher thousands of dollars by mortally wounding his cow.  On the other side of the coin, that rancher just cost you thousands of dollars by not fencing in his cow.


According to Montana Law, there are 2 answers:

Open Range Area:

It's on the driver of the car to replace the value of the animal injured or killed.

Herd District:

It's on the Rancher for not maintaining his fence and his cattle.

What's the difference between open range and herd district and how did it come to be?

From MSU Extension, Ever since the Louisiana Purchase, ranchers had been allowed to let their cattle graze freely on the open range.  In Montana, this began in the 1840's with Jesuit Missionaries in the Bitterroot Valley.  The range livestock industry really boomed in the 1880's with ranchers depending on open grazing year round.  Then the winter of 1886-1887 happened.  Thousands of cattle literally froze to death on the open range.

This disastrous winter started ranchers raising hay for winter feeding, and the need to fence the cattle in so that random animals wouldn't eat what was for the cattle.

Two years before statehood, the Montana Territorial Legislature passed a law stating that ranchers who seperated hayfields from public grazing would have to put up the fence to keep other free-roaming stock out.  More of a herd district.


It is along these rules that our car versus cow laws were decided.  If it's free range, driver beware.  A whole cow or bull "on the hoof" costs a little bit of cash.

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