Ranchers, state, federal officials clash over grazing

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RENO - Nevada's attorney general is sparking unexpected controversy by asking a judge to clarify the state's role in the federal seizure of cattle from ranchers accused of trespassing on U.S. land.

Seeking legal direction in an ongoing dispute over property rights on Western rangeland, Attorney General Brian Sandoval joined the Nevada Agriculture Department in asking a state court to conduct a "judicial confirmation hearing."

Sandoval wants a legal opinion on whether the state acted appropriately when it cooperated with federal land managers who over the past two years impounded and auctioned cattle that had been seized from ranchers accused of illegally grazing livestock on public land.

Leaders of the Nevada Livestock Association - who claim the ranchers' property was seized without a fair hearing - want to block the proceedings scheduled Monday in Washoe County District Court.

The group's leaders include officials for the Independent American Party of Nevada and the Nevada Committee For Full Statehood, and former Idaho congresswoman Helen Chenoweth-Hage and her husband, Wayne Hage, a Nevada rancher and activist long at odds with the U.S. government over grazing and water rights.

They are working on behalf of Ben Colvin, a Goldfield rancher and member of the livestock association who filed a $30 million suit in U.S. Claims Court in Washington D.C., in August after the Bureau of Land Management seized 62 of his cattle in 2001.

They accuse state brand inspector James Connelley of conspiring with the BLM to confiscate the cattle illegally, and have asked for grand jury investigation of his actions in Esmeralda County.

"I never had my day in court because the brand department transferred ownership of my property to the BLM," Colvin said.

"At the very least Connelley should have required the BLM to produce a court order. Instead he and the brand department said to heck with me and my due process rights," he said.

Sandoval, a Republican, said the brand inspector acted appropriately.

He said he sought the court hearing to appease those who allege they were denied due process.

"There was some concern that in regard to the cattle impoundment, that there was an element of due process that was missing - a concern that there hasn't been judicial review," Sandoval told The Associated Press.

"So our office researched some possible due process we could avail and came up with this judicial confirmation," he said this week.

The BLM seized Colvin's cattle and auctioned them off after billing him for more than $73,000 in past due grazing fees and fines. The livestock group's petition in Esmeralda County said Connelley should have exercised his authority under Nevada law to block the confiscation.


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