RENO - A property-rights group is claiming victory in the latest conflict between ranchers and federal land managers over livestock impoundments on Nevada's public lands. But so far, the feds have shown no sign of admitting defeat.
The ranchers are welcoming a grand jury report and a new state law that orders federal land managers, for the first time, to obtain a court order before seized cattle changes hands.
"The days of paramilitary cattle confiscations are over, I hope," said Ramona Morrison of the Nevada Live Stock Association, a states' rights group that largely disputes federal control of public lands.
But the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 48 million acres in Nevada, continues to reiterate its authority under federal regulations to seize cattle administratively - without a court order or any other judicial review - after notice and warning requirements are exhausted.
The BLM said its lawyers are reviewing the new state law.
"It's accurate that we haven't done any roundups since that grand jury investigation, but the two facts are not related," BLM spokeswoman Jo Simpson said. "Impounds are our very last resort to resolving livestock trespass. We have not had any recently that we've needed to do at this time."
The new law comes four years after the BLM seized 62 head of cattle from Goldfield rancher Ben Colvin for nonpayment of grazing fees that the federal government said totaled an estimated $73,000, including penalties. Colvin refused to pay grazing fees, contesting the BLM's authority over the land.
Caught in the middle of the dispute was Jim Connelley, Nevada's chief brand inspector, whose signature was required on certificates for the BLM to transport and auction the cattle.
State's rights advocates accused Connelley of violating state law and abusing Colvin's constitutional due-process rights by signing the documents. In 2003, they successfully gathered enough signatures in rural Esmeralda County to begin a grand jury investigation.
In a report issued June 16, the grand jury said neither Connelley nor the Nevada Department of Agriculture committed indictable criminal offenses.
But the report also said policy statements by the agriculture department and advice given to it by the Nevada attorney general's office were contradictory.
State agriculture officials adopted a policy, widely circulated among the ranching industry, that said it would not issue certificates to the BLM or any federal agency unless first authorized by a court. That was before Colvin's cattle were impounded.
As the BLM prepared the seize his livestock, its policy was scuttled by the state attorney general's office, which said the BLM had sufficient grounds under federal regulations to take possession of the cattle and directed BJM to issue brand certificates.
"Basically, that department policy was negated by the advice of the AG's office," said Don Henderson, director of the Nevada Department of Agriculture.
The new law, he said, "goes along with what our original department policy was."
Connelley said the new state law clarifies his agency's role and sets clear standards that must be met before brand certificates are issued for impounded cattle.
Henderson said his department has since canceled a memorandum of understanding with the BLM about impoundments.