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Know the West

No fences make bad neighbors in Montana

 

BOZEMAN, Mont. - Warren McMillan steers his Chevy Blazer past a wooden sign that advertises residential lots for sale, many of them 20 acres in size with stunning views of the eastern face of the Bridger Mountains. He is wearing a straw cowboy hat, black cowboy boots, cowboy-cut Levis and a cowboy shirt. He passes Cowpoke Road.

There are no cows here.

McMillan did not lease his land as summer range this year because he was expecting another fight with the neighbors, many of them new homeowners in this rural area southwest of Bozeman Pass between Bozeman and Livingston. The last thing they want is cows traipsing through their property.

Talk to anyone around here and it is evident that a new kind of range war is on. McMillan owns about 800 acres, but this is what is known as open range, a concept dating back to the early days of Montana. It means fences are few and cattle can graze from one owner's land to the next.

Montana cattlemen who lease McMillan's 3,000 acres of mountainous grassland graze up to 400 cattle there.

"We were the only ones up here for 20 years," says McMillan.

Long ago, the land was home to coal miners. Parts of it have been heavily logged, some of it by McMillan. Cattle have long dotted the hillsides. But as land in two neighboring subdivisions sold and homes were built in recent years, trouble brewed.

Both sides have complained of fences being cut. McMillan says that one woman swung at him with a sledgehammer and that some of his enemies have run off his cattle. Neighbors say McMillan tears up their land herding cattle, has threatened to kill kids and dogs, and nearly ran over a woman with his four-wheeler.

"Buying a house in cattle country and complaining about cattle is like buying a house in a nudist colony and complaining that people don't wear clothes," says McMillan.

But some property owners say they were not told what open range meant. Others say they were also told the cows would not be a problem. Lot owners say cattle trample their landscaping and muddy their springs. They want McMillan to fence off his property and have asked the Gallatin County Commission to force him to do so.

"I'm not against cows and the open range," says Sue Killian, who with her husband, Ken, bought a 20-acre parcel here in 1993. They now live in a house high on a mountain. "But this is not rangeland anymore."

About 15 homes have been built, and there are more than 100 lots waiting to be developed.

McMillan and others see this as a classic case of residential development ousting agriculture in what were once rural areas. Population growth in Montana has been making clashes such as this more prominent and controversial.

The Killians and others, however, say they're not to blame for pushing out agriculture. They did not subdivide the land; that was done by a Bozeman man, who also logged and used the land for grazing.

"We wouldn't have bought it if it wasn't for sale," says Sue Killian. "If Montana doesn't want to lose anymore rangeland, they shouldn't approve any more subdivisions."

"That really raises my hackles," says Gallatin County Commissioner Bill Murdock, who points out that the developer skirted much governmental review by taking advantage of a now-closed loophole that allowed for 20-acre parcels. Today's commissioners and lawmakers are much more aware of the need to preserve open space and agricultural land, he says.

"I don't think those subdivisions would get approved today," says Murdock, who admits he has little sympathy for the lot owners. He says they should have found out about the cows before they bought their parcels. "If they don't want cattle in there, they should fence them out or move into one of those clustered developments that we call town."

Open-range law favors ranchers. If other property owners do not want cows on their land, it is up to them to fence them out. That saves the rancher money on fencing and, in cases such as McMillan's, increases the amount of available range.

McMillan, who recently turned 83, has lived in Gallatin County since 1959. He says he misses the way things used to be, before the out-of-staters came in and started changing things.

"These people are different from me," he says as he drives through Timberline Creek Subdivision. "When I drive around, I like to see a cow."

Many of the property owners who want McMillan to build fences do have out-of-state addresses. California. New York. Las Vegas. But a few of these "foreigners," as McMillan calls them, support him.

"I'm coming here to live and I'm not changing anything," says Rick Massey, a Los Angeles firefighter who is building a home and plans to live here full time after retiring next year. He says he will fence his garden, but not his entire parcel. "We don't want it to be like where we came from."

Ken Killian is wearing a T-shirt adorned with a large fish and the slogan "hooked on Montana." A sign on the home that he helped build reads, "Welcome to the Mountains."

Ken Killian is no foreigner.

He graduated from Billings Senior High School. After years in the tire business and living in California and Seattle, he and his wife retired here. His family homesteaded in the state and raised cattle and sheep. They put up fences and respected their neighbors' property, he says. Ken Killian says McMillan gives responsible ranchers a bad name.

"You can't sit down and have a conversation with Warren McMillan," Ken Killian says. "You get yelled at, told to get out, he was here first and it's open range."

The Killians like to see bears, moose, elk and deer wander outside their windows. They do not like to see another man's cows feeding on their land and defecating on their deck.

"We have to subsidize his business?" asks Sue Killian. "It's not fair. No one else has to subsidize their neighbor's business."

If everyone in the subdivisions had to fence off their acreage, it would prohibit wildlife from roaming freely, say the Killians and others.

"If everybody strings barbed wire, what's the point of wide open spaces in Montana?" says Sue Killian. "You can't see anything."

There is no easy solution in sight. The Killians and other homeowners say they cannot afford to put up fence. McMillan says the same thing and adds that if Gallatin County commissioners decide he must fence, then he will sell his land to a developer. He's already had some of it listed and figures he could get at least $3,500 an acre.

"If they force me to subdivide, they're going to raise hell because it will ruin their views," McMillan says.

Commissioner Murdock says the solution is to find incentives to keep farmers farming and ranchers ranching instead of forcing them to sell out to developers. He opposes a herding district that would put the fencing burden on McMillan.

"I'm not going to solve it for them by penalizing a rancher," Murdock says. "I'll do anything I can to turn it down."

Joe Kolman reports for the Billings Gazette in Montana.