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Hunting, Animals, and Trespassing

Trespassing happens when a person enters the real property of another property owner without permission. A hunting license is not a license to trespass on private land, but state laws treat hunters differently when it comes to trespassing. 

Some states have laws that specifically address trespassing while hunting, and others rely simply on the general trespassing laws of the state. Also, municipalities can use zoning laws and city ordinances to control local land use.

Posting Requirements

Posting to prevent trespassing is optional in about half of the states. That is, it is against the law for hunters to trespass on private property without the landowner's permission, even if no notice is posted. For example, in New York, it is illegal to enter private land even when there aren't any "keep out" or "private property" signs. Some states have laws specifying how to post land. Local laws may dictate warning signs or demarcation posts.

Firearms, Dogs, and Wounded Animals

In some states, trespass while in possession of a firearm is a felony punishable by:

  1. Imprisonment for up to five years 
  2. A fine of up to $5,000

A few states have laws that address hunters trespassing to retrieve dogs or wounded animals. In most states, hunters may not retrieve dogs or wounded animals if they can't legally hunt on that land.

Trespass By Livestock

Under English law, the livestock owner was strictly liable for any damages to a person or property. No matter how careful, they were still on the hook for harm done by the livestock straying onto the property of another. The fact that animals strayed and caused damage was enough. Their harm to crops, other livestock, or personal property was sufficient to hold the owner liable. Liability extended to the injuries inflicted by cattle, sheep, goats, and horses.

This strict liability position made sense in the confines of a small island like England. But the large swaths of land in the United States created a different situation. With herds of farm animals wandering over vast expanses of land, a different process developed. The legislatures enacted laws that said that domestic animals were free to roam. An owner was not responsible for damage inflicted by those livestock unless they entered land enclosed by a legal fence.

These laws became known as open-range laws. Later, some states reversed the open range laws and required livestock owners to fence in their stock. This position was like the common law position. Under common law, judges made rules through the history and development of court case decisions. Thanks to these judge-made rules, a livestock owner could be liable only upon a showing that the livestock escaped due to the owner's negligence. The law of negligence is a tort law (civil wrong) principle that punishes carelessness when it causes injury. A livestock owner may have a duty to place protective fences on their land. Accordingly, if the animals escape, the owner may face legal issues for their carelessness and damages.

Wild Animals

But what about a wild animal attack that happens on a neighboring property? Here, the owner of the wild animal may be strictly liable for any resulting injuries, regardless of negligence. That person may also be liable under criminal laws that make it a misdemeanor to be a wild animal owner.

Suppose a homeowner keeps animals on a parcel of land. Some, such as grazing cattle and chickens, pose no threat to public safety. But a few of the animals are vicious guard dogs. Even if the owner keeps their dogs constrained, they may escape their kennels. The owner may be liable criminally and under civil law if these wild animals cause physical injury after running across property lines. An injured party may bring a civil action to recover for their personal injuries. A government prosecutor may bring separate criminal charges on behalf of the state.

But if the vicious dog has a history of or propensity to cause harm, the government may have a public health interest in taking the dog away. If the government finds that a wild animal is a dangerous public nuisance, it may be subject to impoundment by animal control or law enforcement. If they pose a danger to the lives of others, such wild animals may even get euthanized by a licensed veterinarian. So, someone who keeps wild animals on their real estate may be criminally and civilly responsible for personal and property damage. They may have to pay restitution to injured parties upon issuing civil or criminal fines.

The Interplay Between Easements and Trespass

Consider the following conditions: One landowner gives a right-of-way to their neighbor to cross onto their land. Legally, this is an easement. The easement has a paragraph that reads as follows:

"I provide permission to allow my neighbor to use my land to cross the river and access water. For the purpose of this section, permission to cross the land extends to my neighbor's domestic animals. The provisions of this section shall not extend to wild animals unless I provide a written exemption. Any violation of this section or its subsections shall immediately invalidate the easement and cause it to become null and void."

Here, the landowners' easement invalidates any argument that their neighbor is trespassing to get to the river. But suppose the neighbor brings his vicious guard dogs to help protect his grazing cows. While the easement allows domestic animals to go with the neighbor, it explicitly prohibits wild animals. Here, a neighbor who brings a wild animal onto the landowner's property may be liable for violating the easement terms. They may also face civil and criminal liability for any harm caused by the animals.

An Attorney Can Help

Consider speaking with a lawyer if you're a property owner or lessee and have questions about your land use. A real estate attorney can advise you on relevant local and state laws affecting your right to keep animals on your property. They can also give you legal advice on posting and license requirements.

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