CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Thinking about letting your yaks run wild or abandoning a horse that’s no longer useful? Better think twice starting in July.
That’s when a new law takes effect in Wyoming that holds owners accountable for livestock that they turn loose.
Under the law, ranchers and farmers who repeatedly refuse to take possession of their livestock must pay for the costs of rounding up the animals, feeding them, providing veterinary service and transporting them back. They’re also liable for any damage their animals cause.
Livestock owners who don’t pay up face up to six months in jail and a $750 fine for a first offense, and double those penalties for repeat offenses.
The law, signed by Gov. Matt Mead in February, came out of concerns about increasing numbers of Wyoming residents turning loose old or infirm horses, as well as a controversy last year about a Johnson County rancher who repeatedly let his herd of yaks wander off onto the land of neighboring ranchers.
“People will just let animals run and kind of claim not to own them until push comes to shove, and then (say), ‘Oh, those are mine,’” Wyoming State Veterinarian Jim Logan said.
While exact statistics on horse abandonment aren’t available, Logan said it’s become a steadily growing problem during the past two or three years in areas with a lot of federal land, such as Sweetwater County.
The main reason horses are turned loose, he said, is that their owners have had other options closed to them in recent years: New government regulations have closed horse slaughter plants nationwide and have made it more difficult to destroy horses or ship them to other countries.
“People get tired of feeding a horse that they can’t use any longer and they can’t sell for anything,” Logan said. “Most of the time they can’t even give one away. They just take them out to a vacant place or a remote place and turn them loose. It happens a lot.”
The other catalyst for Wyoming’s new feral livestock law was a continuing dispute about yaks in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains.
For the past five years or so, a group of about 15 of the woolly Asian bovines has frequently wandered off John and Laura DeMatteis’ Yak Daddy Ranch, irking neighboring ranchers who worry that the yaks eat their grass and could mate with their cattle.
Last spring, three neighboring ranchers convinced the Johnson County commissioners to pass an ordinance declaring “yaks at large” to be nuisance animals. But because of a legal error, that resolution was subsequently pulled and the fine voided.
Wayne Nelson, one of the three ranchers, said while the DeMatteises often eventually come to get their yaks, he’s had to corral and move the herd off his land himself at least five or six times.
“You kind of lose track how many times,” he said.
Nelson said it was “a shame” that a state law had to be passed to deal with one ranch’s yak herd.
“I wish we didn’t have to have it,” said Nelson, who said he called the county sheriff again last week after spotting the yaks on his land. “I wish the neighbors cared about them enough that they would be neighbors and take care of them, but that’s not the case.”
John DeMatteis declined to comment on the new law.