Libby’s urban chicken law comes home to roost

by Derrick Perkins
Editor | March 25, 2020 1:00 AM

About a year-and-a-half after Libby officials allowed residents to keep chickens on their property, local authorities are raising concerns about how to house the poultry in instances of animal control enforcement.

Libby Police Chief Scott Kessel said the question of handling and housing has arisen in law enforcement circles. Were stray chickens picked up on the side of the road or seized in the event of negligence, animal control officers would have no place to house them, he said.

“Currently, we contract with animal control and if there is a dog or cat that needs to be quarantined, it’s stored at the shelter,” he told members of the Libby City Council’s ordinance committee on March 10. “The shelter is not equipped for poultry.”

To allow for the safe storage of chickens, animal control would need to upgrade its existing facility and likely would need to expand staffing, Kessel said. He worried that would end up costing city taxpayers.

“You’ve got to quarantine birds differently than you do for dogs and cats. That would really bump up the animal control budget if that was the route [selected],” Kessel said.

City councilors passed an “urban chicken” ordinance in August 2018. The law allows residents to keep up to five chickens on their property. Conditions regarding yard space and coop size were included in the ordinance. No roosters older than three months are permitted.

Approved at the behest of Libby resident Denise Pepmiller, the language of the ordinance underwent public comment and several meetings. Officials with federal and local agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Lincoln County Health Department, also were consulted.

Before bringing in chickens, residents are required to apply for a permit with the Lincoln County Health Department. But officials said many urban chicken enthusiasts have skipped the step.

“We have lots of chickens, but zero permits,” Kessel said.

When asked by City Councilor Peggy Williams, Kessel said the issue of housing poultry has arisen because at least one resident has asked officials to enforce the ordinance.

“And we have a proactive animal control officer who has seen the animal violations,” he said.

City Councilor Kristin Smith, who sits on the ordinance committee with Williams and City Councilor Brian Zimmerman, said there ought to be several steps authorities could take before it rose to the level of seizing or impounding chickens.

Offenders need to be told that “you need to get a permit and move your cage or we’re going to fine you and if you don’t do any of that we’re going to take your chickens away,” Smith said.

But Kessel said that led back to enforcement and what to do with seized chickens.

Smith suggested animal control take a hard line on chickens. Rather than house the birds, they ought to go to hungry residents, she said.