The Colorado Supreme Court heard oral arguments Feb. 10 in a case that questions whether a cattle feedlot is liable for “taking” wildlife after a severe rainstorm caused one of its wastewater ponds to overflow, allegedly killing thousands of fish in a nearby river.
The case has caught the attention of farmers and ranchers, many of whom are concerned that a decision against the feedlot could greatly expand their liability in the event of natural disasters and other accidents that lead to the death of wildlife.
In 2015, an unusually heavy rainstorm hit 5 Star Feedlot outside of Bethune, causing wastewater to escape a wastewater pond and flow into the South Fork of the Republican River. Days later, state wildlife officials found dead fish in the river and nearby ponds.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife sued 5 Star for unlawful taking of wildlife, alleging the feedlot was strictly liable for and had caused the deaths of 15,000 fish. The district court sided with the state and ordered 5 Star to pay more than $625,000 in damages. However, a division of the Court of Appeals reversed the decision, concluding the wildlife code requires the state to prove 5 Star acted knowingly or performed “some voluntary act that caused the fish to die” and that the state had failed to do so.
On appeal, the Supreme Court is considering whether proving a violation of the take statutes requires evidence of “knowing conduct” and whether it requires an illegal voluntary act.