For more than a century, the raising of cattle and sheep have been important industries in Idaho. However, violent conflicts between cattlemen and sheepherders were common in Idaho’s early history because the two groups competed for rangeland.
This conflict of interest between sheepherders and cattlemen led to serious breaches of the peace and loss of human life.
Rangeland, or “open range” was land freely used for grazing without the payment of compensation and without federal regulation. At times, sheepherders encroached upon sections of the open range that cattlemen used. And conversely, at times, the cattlemen encroached upon the open range claimed by the sheepherders.
The growing population of the territory of Idaho and the United States increased the demand for meat and wool in the late 19th century. This increased demand led to more violent confrontations between cattlemen and sheepherders because both groups needed to feed their growing herds.
The competition for open range culminated in 1896 with the murder of two sheepherders in an area south of present-day Twin Falls. “Diamondfield” Jack Davis, an employee of a large cattle company, was arrested for the crime. Davis was later found guilty, but his sentence was commuted only hours before he was set to hang.
Legislation was necessary to prevent clashes between sheepherders and cattlemen. Idaho Code § 25-1907 made it a misdemeanor for any person to pasture or graze sheep on range land usually occupied by cattle, or usually occupied by any cattle grower. Section 25-1907 was challenged in Omaechevarria v. State of Idaho and was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1918. Believe it or not, this anachronistic statute is still the law in Idaho.
While grazing on public lands is now regulated by state and federal agencies, be advised that grazing sheep on cattle ground is still against the law!