Montana's Right-to-Farm Summary

Since 1973, Montana’s constitution commits to protecting, enhancing, and developing agriculture.1 The legislature later justified the state’s right-to-farm statutes as crucial for sustaining the “farm economy and land bases associated with it,” particularly in the face of nuisance claims by newcomers.2 Since the state first enacted RTF provisions in 1981, the number of farm operations in the state has grown by 13 percent, while the number of acres in farmland has dropped 6 percent.3 So what do these laws do in practice?

Montana’s RTF Law at a Glance

Montana’s RTF laws provide no explicit protection for land. Rather, Montana’s RTF laws, like those present in the other forty-nine states, center on protecting certain types of operations from nuisance suits when they impact neighboring property, for example through noise or pollution. Montana’s statutes protect most agricultural activities and operations commonly associated with farming. Montana’s civil and criminal code protects from nuisance suits an agricultural or farming operation, a place, or a facility, none of which is defined.4 However, in 1995 the state passed amendments that expanded and clarified protected activities in its land use, planning, and zoning code. Since then, agricultural activities are defined as those that provide a gross income of $1,500 or more or that occur on land taxed as agricultural or forest land.5

Nonetheless, Montana’s laws regulating nuisance remain subject to its unique protection of private property rights. As part of its emphasis on open range doctrine, Montana allows persons to remedy an injury to their property more forcefully and directly if a neighbor causes a public nuisance, so long as the property owner does not commit a “breach of the peace” or do “unnecessary injury.”6 This unique provision stands apart nationally. If owners’ right to use and enjoy their property is infringed upon, an authorized person can remedy the nuisance, without regard to any argument concerning competing land uses. The law does not define what constitutes an authorized person.

Conditions and Activities

The agricultural activities protected in Montana’s RTF statutes in some ways mirror those in other states, including noise, odors, dust, and fumes. However, other protected activities in Montana stand apart, for example the protection from wildlife damage; employment and use of labor; and prevention of trespass. Protected activities can also include the conversion from “one agricultural activity to another, provided that the conversion does not adversely impact adjacent property owners.”7

Agriculture operations are not protected under Montana’s law if they fall under one of two conditions. In the first, if the operation conducts an activity outside of its normal course of operation, it can lose RTF protections. The statute does not, however, define what “normal” consists of. In the second, if the operation creates a nuisance for a neighboring resident or business that owned its land before the agricultural operation began production, that operation can lose its RTF protection.8 For example, landowners and residents brought a nuisance lawsuit against a neighboring family that raised cattle and crops as well as against the corporation the family hired to help with hay-grinding. The plaintiffs alleged that the hay-grinding activities produced dust and particulate matter that damaged their property value, led to the loss of enjoyment of property, and created cleanup expenses and respiratory problems. The neighbors also claimed that the farming operation had changed over time by increasing in intensity. However, the court ruled that the RTF laws apply whether the operation changes over time or uses new technology, so long as the agricultural operation existed before the plaintiffs owned their property. The court stated that “the interest that has been in existence longer wins.” In this case, that was the farming operation.9

Local Governance

Montana states in its legislative finding and purpose that it is “the intent of the legislature to protect agricultural activities from governmental zoning and nuisance ordinances.”10 Ordinances or resolutions cannot prohibit any existing agricultural activities or force the termination of any existing agricultural activities outside the boundaries of an incorporated city or town. Zoning and nuisance ordinances may not prohibit agricultural activities that were established outside the corporate limits of a municipality and then incorporated into that municipality by annexation.11

If within a district, 40 percent of the owners of land and buildings have their names on the last assessment roll or 50 percent of the building owners or landowners are taxed for agricultural purposes (for example, brick and mortar businesses), they can protest the establishment of a district or regulations. If they do so, the board of county commissioners is not allowed to adopt the existing resolution or propose another one for a year.12 However, this provision was found to be an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power in Williams v. Board of County Commissioners of Missoula County.13 Now, Montana law provides that the board of county commissioners may, in its discretion, adopt resolutions that create zoning districts or regulations, regardless of whether landowners or building owners protest the zoning.

Open Range Livestock

In 1984, the state of Montana brought a case against the Finleys, alleging that their loose livestock constituted a public nuisance because the livestock interfered with the plaintiffs’ free use and enjoyment of their property and the livestock ran at large upon public roads, causing hazardous road and driving conditions.14 The Supreme Court of Montana ruled that Montana’s public nuisance abatement statutes “should not be utilized to require a livestock owner to prevent his or her stock from running free on county roads in an open range area.”15 Even though the livestock posed potential hazards, the court concluded that the state could not prevent the stockowners from running their livestock at large. However, the Finleys had to demonstrate that their livestock met the requirements of the state’s open range law (that is, purebred in accordance with pertinent laws).16 The case was remanded for the lower court to determine if the Finelys met this requirement.

  • 1. Mont. Const. art. XII, § 1.
  • 2. Mont. Code § 76-2-901 (2021). See also Charles S. Johnson, “Candidates for Governor Weigh in on ‘Right to Farm’ Legislation,” Independent Record (Helena), April 27, 2004.
  • 3. U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA Quick Stats Tool: June 1981 Survey, Montana, distributed by National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed October 27, 2020,; “2021 State Agriculture Overview: Montana,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed October 21, 2022,
  • 4. Mont. Code §§ 27-30-101, 27-30-204, 45-8-111 (2021).
  • 5. Mont. Code § 76-2-902(1) (2021).
  • 6. Mont. Code § 27-30-204 (2021).
  • 7. Mont. Code § 76-2-902 (2021).
  • 8. Mont. Code § 45-8-111 (2021).
  • 9. Dreeszen v. Dan Swartz, Inc., No. DV-09-579, 2010 WL 8747752 (Mont. Dist. July 12, 2010).
  • 10. Mont. Code § 76-2-901 (2021).
  • 11. Mont. Code § 76-2-903 (2021).
  • 12. Mont. Code § 76-2-205(6) (2013).
  • 13. Williams v. Bd. of Co. Comm'rs of Missoula Co., 308 P.3d 88 (Mont. 2013).
  • 14. See Mont. Code § 45-8-111 (2021).
  • 15. State ex rel. Martin v. Finley, 738 P.2d 497 (Mont. 1987) (emphasis added).
  • 16. Mont. Code §§ 81-4-210 to 81-4-211 (2021).