Livestock fence hurts boater on Dolores River Property owner wants cooperative solution for issue

A paddle-boarder on the upper Dolores River was injured Sunday, Sept. 15, after getting caught in a wire fence on a private ranch.

The Cortez man struggled to free himself from the fence in rushing water, and was banged up from the experience, said Lee Ann Hill, director of the Dolores River Boating Advocates.

"It was a dangerous situation, and could have been worse," she said. "It was a near drowning, but he was able to free himself."

The incident highlights the dangers of fences to boaters along that stretch of river, which has a lot of private property, Hill said.

Dave Huhn, a Montezuma County Sheriff's Office deputy and water-rights mitigator, said property owners often own both sides and river bottom, and there is an established legal right to install livestock fences across the river.

"It's a common practice for ranchers, but it also can be a liability, and a hazard boaters need to be aware of," he said.

The fence entangling the boater was strung across the Dolores River Ranch owned by Bruce Lightenburger to control his cattle herd.

In an interview, Lightenburger said boaters are technically trespassing when they float through his property, but he is willing to work with the boating community to construct a fence that meets his ranching needs and the needs of private boaters.

"They have never contacted me, but I'm willing to work with them on considering a solution," he said. "I don't want people to get hurt. My fence serves a purpose for my livelihood. I also can't allow people to be ripping down my fence and letting my cattle out onto the highway, causing an accident."

He said he has seen fences constructed of hanging PVC pipe be effective on the San Miguel River for controlling cattle.

"The boaters would just push it aside and go through, and it would trick my cattle," he said. "It would be nice if I did not have to do the work or pay for it. I'm allowing private boaters, who don't make a profit, to float through my property. I feel they should chip in."

Lightenburger has compiled a legal case that boaters are illegally trespassing when they float through his property, but he has allowed it so far.

"In my 18 years, I have never had a problem with them, I am also a boater," he said. "People have been ripping my fence out, and that is unacceptable and illegal."

Added Lightenburger, "When people trespass, it is at their own risk, and I am not liable if there are accidents. There are many hazards on the river - downed trees, old cars."

He said he will likely post signs along the river informing boaters that they are on private property and are entering at their own risk.

Part of the "problem" is unusually high late-summer rainfall has bumped up flows to boatable levels on the Dolores River. Typically in late summer, the Dolores is a trickle and unboatable, and fences across the river are not a safety issue. Recently, the river spiked at 1,000 cubic feet per second creating a surge of boating activity.

"It has been a freak year with all the rain. People don't realize that when the water rises that much not even I can get across to take my fence down," Lightenburger said. "Before the spring flows, I try to remove the fence. High water is a natural fence for my cows."

From the confluence with the West Fork of the Dolores to the town of Dolores - a popular 15-mile boat trip - the river passes through private property including dozens of ranches and rural neighborhoods. The scenic bluffs, red cliffs, open ranches and Class 2 and Class 3 rapids make it a fun trip, but it is far from a pristine, remote, wilderness stretch of river on public lands.

Landowner rights on raftable rivers have prevailed in court cases, making boating ethics, respect for private property and a cooperative attitude a key component for continued boating access on the upper Dolores River.

"I feel positive that we can work something out," Hill said.