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Know the West

Judge kicks out cows

  After nearly five years of haggling over how many cows should be allowed on the Diamond Bar grazing allotment in New Mexico, U.S. District Judge Howard Bratton ordered Dec. 4 that all 863 cows belonging to ranchers Kit and Sherry Laney must leave national forest land.

The Laneys had sued last spring when Forest Service officials cut their number of permitted cattle to 300 and forbade them to install new watering tanks on their Catron County allotment, which lies inside two wilderness areas (HCN, 3/4/96). The ranchers let their permit expire in March but continued to graze cattle illegally, arguing that they had grazing rights tied to territorial water rights from the1880s. Judge Bratton disagreed. He fined the Laneys $42,000 for grazing unauthorized cattle.

Environmentalist Susan Schock, whose group Gila Watch criticized overgrazing on the Diamond Bar, called the ruling a sound victory. "They said it couldn't be done," she says. "We did it without compromising."

Because Judge Bratton did not set a timetable for removing the cattle, Chuck Sundt, range specialist for the Gila National Forest, says his agency will go back to court to set a date.

As for the Laneys, they say they will fight the decision all the way to the Supreme Court if need be. Meanwhile, with no place to graze, they will likely be forced to sell their cows. "It's no longer our ball game," says Kit Laney. "It's the bank's."

* Tony Davis