Seeking Justice: Ranchers, Indians appeal to county sheriff
ELKO, Nevada - 5/23/02 -- Nevada Live Stock Association wants the sheriffs of Nevada to take a stand for private property rights and against confiscation of cattle by federal agents.
Several members, including cowboy poet and former rancher Waddie Mitchell, met Wednesday with Elko County Sheriff Neil Harris seeking his support in the event of an impoundment attempt by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Association Chairman David Holmgren of Mineral County and his wife, association secretary Jackie Holmgren, traveled to Elko after hearing that Western Shoshone ranchers at South Fork were served an impoundment notice last week by the BLM.
Raymond Yowell of the Te-Moak Livestock Association called for the meeting with Harris and was joined by the Holmgrens and Mitchell, along with association members Pete Mori and Kent Howard. They presented their legal arguments to Harris and Deputy District Attorney Kristen McQueary.
After the meeting, the Holmgrens described for the Elko Daily Free Press how they believe brand laws have been circumvented in order to take cattle from ranchers who do not pay the federal government for grazing permits.
Yowell also claimed the BLM has been increasing its surveillance of his cattle on the Mitchell Creek allotment, which includes a section of unfenced reservation land. On one occasion, BLM agents watched for three and a half hours as tribal ranchers worked to repair a water tank on their own property, he said.
The association quit paying grazing fees to the federal government 19 years ago, Yowell said, to protect Shoshone rights under the Ruby Valley Treaty. If they had continued to pay them, he said, it would have been conceding ownership to the government.
"In order for the United States to charge us for grazing, we felt they had to show us how they acquired the territory," Yowell said. So far, no federal agency -- including the BLM -- has been able to do that, he added.
Meanwhile, the federal government is attempting to dole out millions of dollars to Western Shoshone to settle their claims on the land.
The Holmgrens believe county sheriffs are the key to protecting ownership of branded cattle.
David Holmgren said when brands originated, they were considered the equivalent of putting cattle under a "lock and key."
The Holmgrens produced an April 12, 2001, letter from Assistant Director Don Henderson of the Nevada Department of Agriculture explaining how transfer of ownership can only be accomplished through the issuance of a brand inspection certificate.
In Nevada, "the department has a firm policy not to issue a brand inspection certificate to the BLM (or any federal agency) unless it is first authorized by court order from an appropriate jurisdiction," Henderson wrote.
But last year cattle confiscated from two western Nevada ranchers were transferred by the BLM without a court order. The Holmgrens said this was achieved by the state entering a "memorandum of understanding" (MOU) with the federal agency under a law that was designed to allow cooperation on work projects, not to take property from citizens.
"You can't take somebody's property just because you write an MOU," Jackie Holmgren said.
Sheriffs have a legal and moral obligation to protect citizens' private property rights, she said. Instead, many rely on their district attorney for legal advice. The attorneys cite an alleged Nevada Attorney General opinion supporting the brand inspector's action, but the Holmgrens' copy of the letter from Attorney General Frankie Sue del Papa says it is not to be considered an official opinion of her office.
Some sheriffs are coming around to see their side, they said, including their own in Mineral County where the Holmgrens themselves have been served notice by the BLM.
They also said Sheriff Ken Jones is opposed to any impoundment attempts in Eureka County, where the Dann sisters also have been served notice by the BLM.
State BLM Director Bob Abbey made it clear last year that he believes ranchers who graze cattle without a permit are trespassers and the agency has a legal right to seize their property.
Those who lost their cattle in last year's roundups say they stopped paying grazing fees because the BLM is allowing wild horses to multiply and compete for forage.
Nevada Live Stock Association and other groups such the Nevada Committee for Full Statehood have pledged to "peacefully obstruct" the removal of cattle, the Holmgrens said. If a civil disturbance results, the sheriff has the power to clear the area.
After their meeting, Harris said he would rely on whatever the district attorney decides.
"A lot of it appeared to me to be a political statement," Harris said.
David Holmgren is running for governor and Jackie Holmgren has filed for her Assembly district.
Harris also faces a re-election challenge this year.
The BLM impoundments "may or may not be a taking without due process," Harris said. "It's not my place to interpret state or federal law."
But the Homgrens believe county sheriffs have a duty to uphold citizens' constitutional rights, because they are the only elected law enforcement agents in the county.
"This is a civil case," Harris concluded. "It belongs in court, not out on the range."
The Holmgrens agree. They would like to see a court order the next time the BLM attempts to take branded cattle from their owner.
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