Cars and trucks roar along Rio Verde Drive all day, heading to upscale developments as they pass through an open range where all that separates them from hundreds of cattle and horses is a deteriorating strand of barbed wire.
This conflict between the encroaching city and Old West turned deadly this weekend, when a 29-year-old woman died after striking a horse on Rio Verde Drive, a two-lane road that cuts through thick desert brush. The incident took place only minutes after another man struck a horse while driving on the same stretch of road.
Rio Verde residents and law enforcement officers said those kind of incidents were inevitable, given the mix of increased traffic and growing abuse by visitors who forget they've just left a large city.
Rio Verde is the site of a classic clash between urbanization and Old West culture, said Katie Decker, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Agriculture. Residents flood the office with complaints about cattle roaming the area.
“That’s one of our hot spots," she said. "It’s the ‘Wild, Wild West.’ You can pretty much let your cattle come and go where you please. You have to fence them out because it’s not the cattle rancher’s job to fence them in.”
Deputies boosted patrol efforts Monday evening to prevent similar collisions, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said. He’s trying to increase awareness of the area’s open range status by posting electronic message boards, issuing fliers and increasing speed patrols, he said.
Too many drivers speed in the area, giving them little time to react when animals jump out of brush that's only a few feet from the road, he said. "At least when you slow down a little, you've got a fighting chance," Arpaio said.
The number of loose animals on Rio Verde Drive has increased recently, said Mitchell Fickes, a deputy with the sheriff's posse. Fickes, who works weekend nights, said he’s seen five or six dead animals in the last six weeks. Drivers often strike animals and leave the scene without reporting the collisions, he said, because they are considered at fault when they strike animals in an open range.
When the two collisions occurred Saturday night, Fickes heard a report of 14 cattle on Rio Verde Drive. The road is so dark drivers often don't see cattle or horses until it's too late.
“They need to be aware, slow down and pay attention to the side of the road,” Fickes said. “It’s darker than the inside of a cow’s belly here.”
Some new residents have blamed the owners of cattle and horses for letting them roam free. But Rio Verde resident Ted Fuchs said landowners do all they can to keep their valuable animals fenced. He blamed irresponsible visitors for destroying fences and driving carelessly.
“You know what we call them out here?” Fuchs asked. “Citidiots.”
City dwellers cause the problems, Fuchs contends, by cutting holes into gates so they can drive their off-road vehicles in the desert foothills. Drivers put themselves at risk by driving too fast, he said, pointing to a steady stream of speeding cars, trucks and construction equipment that roared along the two-lane road Monday afternoon.
“When I first moved out here six years ago, you wouldn’t see a car out here this time of day,” Fuchs said.
Rio Verde residents expect the problem to worsen because new development leads to more gates and openings in the fence that are supposed to keep animals off the road. Rio Verde resident Mary Foster said too many homeowners or developers don’t bother to put in cattle guards or they build fences that visitors leave open.
She’d like to see self-closing gates or cattle guards a requirement for all new development. Foster, a real estate agent, said even the smallest parcels of land typically cost $160,000. Many lots go for more than $500,000, which makes a cattle guard’s cost insignificant.
“That’s a small price for a life.”
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