Protecting life, and livelihoods, in a remote land

Bob Mercer Farm Forum Columnist
Farm Forum

PIERRE — Protecting livestock owners was one reason South Dakota put laws about branding on the books long ago.

Protecting landowners against people being on property without permission was one reason our Legislature passed laws against trespassing.

Yet you still hear about livestock gone missing and about people being where they shouldn’t be.

Many of us who live in towns and cities shrug it off.

But these things matter to thousands of men and women who make their livings off the lands that start at the edges of our cities and towns.

These men and women often work more acres and care for more head than they can visit or count in a single day.

Farming and ranching formed the roots of our region’s economy for more than a century, since before Dakota Territory became two states that November day in 1889.

When prices for crops and livestock rise, so does our economy. When those prices fall, as they have, our economy does, too.

We live in a land where road signs tell the miles to the next available services.

Geographically, it’s a lot of space.

It’s a place where property taxes and sales taxes provide most of the revenue essential for government agencies to run.

It’s why government agencies tend to be small. There’s not money to waste.

That’s why sheriff departments are small.

That’s why county prosecutors have minimal staff.

The space is why it takes hours or days for a rancher to notice a cow has gone missing.

It’s why a rancher needs hours or days to look farther before finally reporting a missing cow.

The big space and smallness of government are why it takes hours or days for a law officer to pull into a home place and get the story about a missing cow.

Then it’s days or weeks of the officer checking where the cow might be.

At some point, the sheriff might contact the state brand office for help. The brand office assigns some agents to look into missing livestock.

But some legislators at the Capitol question how much the brand office and attorney general spend looking for livestock. (I’ve seen this.)

More and more of the 105 legislators come from cities.

Most of our people live east of the Missouri River where brands aren’t required.

County prosecutors, meanwhile, seldom prosecute if cases aren’t lock-tight.

It’s the same for trespassing. Landowners assume, with high accuracy, a trespasser was stealing something.

That could be livestock or equipment, or a sportsman pursuing wildlife.

The state Game, Fish and Parks Commission is looking into trespassing. Commissioners are four landowners who make their livings in agriculture and four who don’t.

Scott Phillips, a rancher from rural New Underwood, and Doug Sharp, a Watertown car and truck dealer, have suggested ways legislators might beef up trespass laws.

Meanwhile, our state is just as big as ever.

Farmers and ranchers produce more crops and livestock.

All of us need to pay more attention.

And if we’re hunting or fishing or trapping or hiking, we need to ask permission.

Farm Forum Correspondent Bob Mercer has covered South Dakota government and politics for more than three decades. His writing from Pierre is syndicated to newspapers around South Dakota. Follow @pierremercer on Twitter, and find his blog, Pure Pierre Politics, at

Bob Mercer