FALLON, Nev. (AP) - Two ranchers and their allies fighting the federal seizure of cattle for alleged trespassing in Nevada are ''jeopardizing the future of grazing on public lands,'' the head of the Bureau of Land Management in the state said Wednesday.
''I don't really even care to characterize these people as ranchers. They are trespassers,'' said Bob Abbey, BLM's state director for Nevada.
''What they are trying to do quite frankly is get something for free from the American taxpayers,'' he told The Associated Press. ''What it does is undercut the good work that 98 percent of our permittees are doing in complying with the terms of their permit.''
Abbey, based in Reno, leveled the unusually strong criticism as ranchers and states' rights activists pressed the Churchill County sheriff unsuccessfully Wednesday to release nearly 200 cattle the government seized last week.
The county district attorney's office concluded the dispute is more civil in nature than criminal and that the ranchers should pursue the matter in court if they desire, Deputy District Attorney Tom Stockard said.
''Understandably, I think they were hoping we would just return the cattle to them,'' Stockard said after meeting with the ranchers and about 20 other activists Wednesday.
''We just don't see that as our real, lawful authority,'' he said.
BLM officials said the impounded cattle won't be freed until the two Nevada ranchers pay a combined $370,000 in fines and fees.
The BLM confiscated 130 cattle owned by John Vogt of Lida and 62 cattle owned by Ben Colvin of Goldfield in disputes over grazing without permits dating to 1995. The agency said the ranchers are overgrazing tens of thousands of acres of federal range about 150 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The cattle could be auctioned off as soon as next week if the bills remain unpaid.
''My perception is their action is jeopardizing the future of grazing on public lands. I think they are failing to take that into account,'' Abbey said in an interview.
''It gives proponents of no grazing on public lands some additional ammunition they can use in support of their own agenda,'' he said about national environmental groups that want to ban federal livestock grazing outright.
The cattle have been impounded at a livestock auction yard in Fallon, where about 50 protesters picketed Tuesday against the confiscation.
Colvin and leaders of the anti-federal group, the Nevada Committee for Full Statehood, met with Churchill County Undersheriff Richard Ingram to urge the release of the cattle.
''I don't think they have the right to take my cattle,'' said Colvin, 63, whose family has been in the ranching business since 1860. ''They may have the power but they don't have the right. That is flat stealing my property.''
BLM officials disagree. They say Colvin, Vogt and others who thumb their nose at the federal regulations are overgrazing the lands to the detriment of natural resources and at the expense of U.S. taxpayers.
Abbey was especially critical of the Nevada Committee for Full Statehood.
''I think some of their rhetoric is a ruse for hiding their true agenda. Their true agenda is espousing their anti-government agenda and trying to intimidate those who might disagree with them,'' he said.
The ranchers said the BLM is the one doing the intimidating.
Cliff Gardner, a Ruby Valley rancher who is a member of the committee, is involved in his own court battle with the Forest Service over alleged trespassing of cattle, said the federal land management policies are a form of ''cleansing''
''It's been their objective for 35 to 40 years to cleanse all the public lands of mining, ranching, recreation. They want to control it all,'' said Gardner, who was fined $1,000 by a federal judge in February for illegal grazing on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. U.S. prosecutors had been seeking a jail sentence.
Undersheriff Ingram earlier referred the ranchers' complaints that the BLM had stolen the cattle to neighboring Nye and Esmerelda county sheriff's offices with jurisdiction over the area south of Goldfield where the cattle were seized last week.
''But in the (ranchers') view, the stolen cattle are being held here in Churchill County,'' Ingram said Wednesday. ''I took a statement as well as supporting documentation, drew a case number, did a case report and delivered it to the district attorney.''
Stockard said they determined ''there are two people claiming to be the rightful owner of the property.
''If they want redress, they should look to state or federal court and file an action there,'' he said.
BLM Nevada state office: http://www.nv.blm.gov/