Showdown on the Nevada range

Ranchers trespass on public lands, says the BLM

  • ENFORCER: Bob Abbey, Nevada state director for the Bureauof Land Management


FALLON, Nev. - Ben Colvin and Jack Vogt have grazed cattle on vast swaths of public land in Nevada without paying a cent for seven years. But the jig was up on July 26, when contract cowboys working for the Bureau of Land Management rounded up 62 cows and calves owned by Colvin and shipped them to Snow's Livestock Auction here in Fallon to pay for $72,000 in back grazing fees and fines. Two days later, the BLM began impounding cattle owned by Vogt, who owes $237,000 to the federal government.

The BLM accuses the ranchers of trespassing on public lands. The ranchers insist they own the forage on their allotments, which together cover 1,802 square miles.

The impoundment set off another high-profile skirmish in the long-running sagebrush rebellion in Nevada. In recent years, the U.S. Forest Service has borne the brunt of the conflict. A nasty fight over a remote road into the Jarbidge Wilderness in northern Nevada led to the resignation of forest supervisor Gloria Flora in 1999 (HCN, 11/22/99: Nevadans drive out forest supervisor).

Now the BLM is being drawn into the conflict. Bob Abbey, the agency's state director in Nevada, has spent much of the last four years trying to keep a low profile, while traveling the state meeting with ranchers. His most public initiative has been a multimillion-dollar fire rehabilitation and restoration program that benefits ranchers as much as it does wildlife and the environment. "When I first came into the state four years ago, I was concerned I had to build some credibility," Abbey says. "Our focus was to build relationships and not just tear them down."

Abbey says the BLM has tried to quietly persuade rebellious ranchers like Colvin and Vogt, and a handful of others who openly flout the law, to change their ways. "Not knowing them, I thought we could make positive resolutions without having to take action, but I was wrong," he says. "We've run out of patience."

This spring, the BLM paved the way for action by getting support for the impoundment from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Nevada Attorney General, Frankie Sue del Papa. Local sheriffs in Esmeralda and Nye counties, where Colvin and Vogt run cattle, as well as a handful of other counties warned the BLM not to impound any cattle in their jurisdictions. But after receiving warnings from the Justice Department and the Attorney General that the impoundments were legal, they backed off.

Serfs under King BLM

While the BLM has gotten official support, reaction at the grass roots has been decidedly less supportive. Colvin and Vogt, and the loose movement of which they are part, have received banner coverage in the Nevada media, where their cause is presented on an equal footing with the BLM. The largest newspaper in the state, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, has sided with the ranchers.

Rebel supporters were out in force at the auction yard in Fallon on Aug. 7. Protesters brandished signs saying "BLM cattle rustlers," and, in case the message wasn't clear: "Cattle rustling is a capital offense." They passed out notices warning buyers away, and they jeered BLM officials.

"This is not a state, it's a territory," said Janine Hansen, one of the leaders of the Nevada Committee for Full Statehood, which organized the picket. "We're not sovereign citizens. We're serfs under King BLM and King Forest Service. And it's no better under Bush than it was under Clinton."

Back near the stock pens, a cowboy named Danny Berg took notes while Gary Snow, the owner of the auction yard, sorted cattle. "These are Ben Colvin's cattle, not the government's," Berg said. Ranchers don't need a permit to graze cattle, he said. "They own the grass.

"It's not public lands," he added. "It's a split estate."

That is the essence of the argument that has been advanced by a rancher named Wayne Hage, who inspired this new-wave sagebrush rebellion by openly defying the Forest Service in Nevada. After the Forest Service impounded his cattle in 1991, Hage sued the agency for "taking" his ranch (HCN, 9/21/91). The case is still in court.

Ben Colvin is eager to follow Hage's example. "I'd like to go as far as he's going," says Colvin. "I'm gonna keep fighting for my property."

Colvin runs cattle on 538,000 acres of public land. "I don't own the land," he concedes. But the "water, forage, the improvements, and the right to the whole allotment," he asserts, are his. "I bought all this allotment, lock, stock and barrel," he adds. "It's all mine."

It turns out Colvin will have his day in court. He arrived at the auction yard with a temporary restraining order from a district court just moments before his cattle were to be auctioned.

When the BLM went ahead and tried to auction Jack Vogt's cattle, protesters shouted: "They're stolen cattle!" and "Don't bid on 'em!" And no one did.

More rebellions ahead

Despite the long history of the sagebrush rebellion in Nevada, all of this has left BLM state director Abbey reeling. "I worry about where we are at in Nevada," he says.

But he remains resolute. The impoundments were "intended to send a message," he says. "It's important that we prevail or we would have more people question our authority on the public lands."

But quelling the rebellion will require even more impoundments, and inevitably more confrontation. There are around seven to 10 other ranchers who regularly trespass, agency officials say, about half of them for ideological reasons. Although that is only a small fraction of the 700 ranchers with public-land grazing permits in Nevada, each impoundment raises the profile of the rebellion.

And some of those ranchers are Indians, who have an even longer-running battle with the federal government. Raymond Yowell, a rancher from the Te-Moak tribe of the Western Shoshones in northern Nevada, which has refused to pay fees for grazing for many years, says other ranchers "are starting to be treated like us, or how we were in the past, and experience the might of the federal government." Carrie and Mary Dann are Western Shoshone ranchers who have openly defied the BLM for more than 25 years by grazing cattle and horses on public land without a permit around their ranch in Crescent Valley. In August, Carrie Dann traveled to the United Nations office in Geneva to assert their rights and protest against the BLM. At home, the Dann sisters face a notice of impoundment from the BLM and a bill for more than $1 million.

Jon Christensen writes from Carson City, Nevada.


  • Nevada Committee for Full Statehood, 775/352-8262
  • BLM Nevada State Office, 775/861-6400.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Jon Christensen

High Country News Classifieds
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.