What began as the Bureau of Land Management's attempt to salvage rangeland from a dry summer has become a miniature Sagebrush Rebellion.
This summer, the BLM repeatedly ordered ranchers Quinn Griffin and Mary Bulloch to remove their cattle from remote grazing allotments in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Finally, the agency did the deed itself, impounding 44 cows in a Salina, Utah, feedlot to await auctioning (HCN, 9/25/00: Ranchers test an agency's image).
Griffin, Bulloch and about 14 other ranchers were quick to retaliate, however. On Election Day, the ranchers took back the cattle after convincing Sevier County attorney Don Brown that they owned the animals.
"Since when did the cattle become government property?" asks Todd Macfarlane, a rancher and lawyer representing a few of the ranchers involved. Macfarlane says the ranchers had every right to take back their herds and did so in a forthright, peaceful manner. It was the BLM, he says, that violated the law.
U.S. attorney Paul Warner is threatening the ranchers with $250,000 fines and 10 years in prison if they don't return the cattle. Whether or not the BLM had the right to impound the cows, adds Warner's spokeswoman, Melodie Rydalch, stealing them back wasn't the answer.
"If they had a grievance," says Rydalch, "the remedy for that is to go to court and tell the BLM they were wrong."
While Macfarlane and Rydalch confirm that the U.S. attorney is close to a deal with Griffin, Mary Bulloch, the rancher who owns most of the cattle, is far from giving in.
Bill Hedden of the Grand Canyon Trust finds the whole situation disheartening. If the BLM wasn't within the law in impounding the cows, says Hedden, then "they'd better forget about having any authority to manage grazing" on the monument in the future.