GATESVILLE — Coryell County residents will decide in November whether livestock should be allowed to roam on open range or be restricted to fenced enclosures.
Should stock owners be required to keep their cattle fenced in, or should their neighbors be required to keep the cattle fenced out?
What sounds like a straightforward proposition involves two separate ballot initiatives and more than a small ration of confusion.
“It’s a mess,” said County Attorney Brandon Belt.
“It’s a wreck,” said County Tax Assessor Justin Carothers, the county’s top election official.
“It is totally conboomerated,” said David Freeman of Evant, the man who petitioned for the Nov. 6 ballot initiatives to clarify the issue, and who found it so confusing, he invented a word to describe it.
In the early days of cattle barons, Texas was an open range where cows could move and graze wherever grass was found.
As beef production became more sophisticated and ranchers began developing pure-bred strains, there was a need to keep cattle fenced. With the spread of cities and suburbs, farmers and smaller landowners further encroached on the open range.
No clear law
In an effort to ease the war between open- and closed-range factions, Texas lawmakers provided for a local option, allowing individual precincts to decide the matter. Coryell precincts split on the issue in years past, but the precinct lines have changed so there is no clear law.
Freeman sought to clear up the matter after he called to complain about cattle roaming the shoulders of Farm-to-Market 183 and was told the sheriff was not clear on the law.
“The problem is our lawman doesn’t know what law the county operates under,” Freeman told the Coryell County commissioners last week.
Freeman succeeded in having the issue put before the voters this fall, but he said the public needs to be educated about the ballot language.
The first initiative pertains only to cattle. The ballot language states simply: “Adoption of the Stock Law.”
A “yes” vote will support a closed range, meaning the cattle owner is responsible for keeping his livestock contained. A “no” vote supports open range, meaning landowners are responsible for keeping cattle off their property.
The second initiative pertains to livestock other than cattle. The ballot language states: “Letting horses, mules, jacks, jennets, donkeys, hogs, sheep and goats run at large in Coryell County.”
On this initiative, a “no” vote supports closed range; a “yes” vote favors open range.
Most Texas counties have closed-range laws, Marvin Wills, special ranger for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, told the commissioners.
“This really needs to be cleared up,” Wills said. “There is no doubt there needs to be closed range.”
Freeman said there is no hope for streamlining the ballot language to make it easier for voters to know what choice they are making.
“Gonzales County tried to combine the laws (in one initiative) and voted down open range,” Freeman said.
The decision was thrown out in the courts, he said, and the county was forced to resubmit the issue as two separate initiatives. Three years after the first vote, the Gonzales County voters again voted for a closed range.