Havre Daily News
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION - The Rocky Boy tribal council approved the first draft of a policy that would eliminate open range status on half the reservation, which is currently all open range.
The requirement could mean penalties for livestock owners whose animals wander at large because of owner negligence. It could also mean the owner will be liable if a car accident results.
Robert "Sonny" Belcourt, director of the tribal Department of Natural Resources, presented the draft, called the Livestock Trespass Code, at a council meeting Thursday.
The policy would allow open range status only for land that is already designated as a range area. Some are scattered throughout the reservation and others are concentrated in the mountains on the south side of the reservation and in the plains on the north side, he said. Some are fenced; some are not.
Reservation livestock producers lease the areas from the tribal government to graze cattle.
"Because there was so many cattle on the road, something had to be done," Belcourt said after he received the go-ahead from the council to continue revising the policy.
Belcourt said it's a problem that has been passed between departments. Gates are left open or fences are not repaired and the livestock end up on the road.
"It comes back to my department each time," he said, and so he decided to address it.
The policy Belcourt is working on would be added to the Law and Order Code. He said he hopes it can be completed in a few months, but many tribal entities, including tribal courts, will have to sign off on it. Public hearings will also be held, he said.
Belcourt said horses, which are not allowed in the range units, will not be allowed to roam freely.
"What we're saying is our roads down here are built for speed," he said.
In the past few years, many motorists have hit horses, including a Rocky Boy Health Clinic physician's assistant who died a year ago when he hit a horse that was on the road at night.
In February, a Rocky Boy school bus hit two horses, said Rocky Boy Public Schools Superintendent Sandra Murie. There were no students on board, and the driver was not injured, but the bus was totaled, she said. The bus was on Upper Road, near Stone Child College.
A new policy would be good for student safety, she said.
Rocky Boy has always been defined entirely as open range, Chief Judge Duane Gopher said in a March interview.
On April 19 the tribal court will hear a civil suit filed by Eugene Gopher, who is trying to recover damages for a horse that was killed on the road in February, according to the tribal court.
Gopher is suing Lawanda Arkinson for the death of his horse, which he said Arkinson hit and killed on the road.
In an interview, Arkinson said she suffered physical problems, as well as damage to her vehicle, as a result of the accident. The responsibility for the accident, she said, should not be hers.
"There's not even one open range sign out here," she said. "I think the horse owners should be liable."
Gopher could not be reached for comment.
Chantalle Nault said her mother was seriously injured after hitting a horse last summer. Her mother suffered a stroke at the scene of the accident, she said.
"My mom was a really healthy, outgoing person. She's only 59 year old," Nault said. "She was a really spry woman."
Nault's mother walks with a cane and is undergoing speech therapy, Nault said.
Leon LaSalle, president of the Rocky Boy Cattlemen's Association, strongly supports a policy change.
"It's a safety issue, number one," he said.
LaSalle said open range laws protect livestock owners when animals escape inadvertently, despite precautions to prevent escape.
"What it doesn't, in my opinion, protect against is willfully letting your animals run at large on the highway right of way," he said. "Some guys are allowing their horses and cattle to run at large and are not concerned. They always hide behind open range."
LaSalle hopes a new policy will "add some teeth" to the common sense rule of keeping animals off the road.
He spoke at Thursday's council meeting advocating a clause in the new policy differentiating between animals that escape as a result of negligence versus those that escape due to uncontrollable acts.
What if a fence were destroyed at night by an errant motorist, he asked. LaSalle said there is a difference between animals escaping in that case versus animals that are left on the road for days and even weeks at a time.
LaSalle said he thought nothing has been done in the past because of politics.
"The business committee is in charge of everything," he said. "They don't want to do too much to jeopardize the next election."
At Thursday's meeting, the council showed unanimous support for the first draft of the code.
Council member Brian "Kelly" Eagleman said open range is a "touchy" issue on the reservation. He said a new policy could be good for public safety, but he would not want livestock owners held responsible for true accidents that could not be prevented, such as LaSalle's example, or even a neighbor who leaves another neighbor's gate open.
"There's times that people break fences for some odd reason," Eagleman said. "I don't see that as the producer's fault."
LaSalle said the livestock owners have reason to support the measure.
"We want to be seen as good stewards of the livestock and the land. That's why we're supporting that something be done," he said. "We're a minority out there. We don't want the community to come down on us and say we're not taking care of the livestock."