FALLON, Nev. (AP) - Sheriff's deputies in at least two Nevada counties were poised to block federal agents from impounding cattle last week, until the U.S. Justice Department warned the local law officers they could face federal criminal prosecution if they interfered, The Associated Press has learned.
The Bureau of Land Management seized 130 cattle from John Vogt of Lida, Nev., last month, saying he owes $300,000 in fees and penalties for illegal grazing on public land. BLM agents also seized 62 cattle from Ben Colvin, of Goldfield, Nev. They say he owes $70,000.
The agency said the ranchers are overgrazing tens of thousands of acres in Nye and Esmeralda counties, 150 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The ranchers dispute BLM's jurisdiction over public lands and accuse the federal agency of stealing their cattle. They found a sympathetic ear with the sheriffs in the two counties. But possible plans by the sheriffs to block the seizure made their way to the Justice Department, which warned them off.
In a copy of the letter obtained by AP, acting U.S. Attorney Howard Zlotnick told Esmeralda County Sheriff Kenneth Elgan:
''It is my understanding that you have indicated that you will not permit the confiscation of cattle without a court order and will view such action as a violation of Nevada law.
''In addition, you do not believe BLM has law enforcement authority within your county. This position is an incorrect statement of the law ...,'' Zlotnick wrote.
''Potential violations of federal law would arise if anyone interfered with BLM employees lawfully engage in their assigned duties.''
Wayne Howell, a deputy state attorney general, said he also contacted the district attorneys from the two counties to assure them the BLM had the legal authority to seize the cattle without first obtaining a court order.
Howell said the state attorney general's office got involved after it was contacted by federal prosecutors.
''We had heard this was coming, that they had some concern with the authority of the BLM to impound livestock,'' he said in an interview. ''In particular, we had heard there was opposition on the basis of some of the old Sagebrush Rebellion arguments. There was talk that there would be an arrest of whoever was going to conduct the impounding.''
A Nye County sheriff's deputy confirmed there had been talk of blocking the seizures.
Nye County Sheriff Wade Lieseke ''felt very strongly about it,'' Lt. Tony Philips told the AP. ''He had actually ordered me to get my people and go out and stop it,'' Philips said.
Philips said the sheriff subsequently talked to the federal prosecutors as well as the local district attorney and decided against any intervention, in part for fear of federal prosecution.
''I didn't want to end up at Club Fed,'' Philips said.
Liesek was on vacation and not available for comment, a spokeswoman for his office said.
State's rights activists have protested the seizure, picketing the BLM state office. The BLM state director, in turn, has accused Vogt and Colvin of being nothing more than trespassers trying to get free grazing.
Philips said the warning to local law officers was an act of intimidation.
''They do that,'' the deputy said. ''They intimidate and hope they can get away with it.''
He said county officials were researching their legal options.
''We unfortunately had to let them take the cattle. But we are going to try to get an answer for federal court before they do it again. We'd like to help the ranchers here,'' Philips said. ''If it turns out they are not meeting due process, they'll never round up any cattle around here again without a court order.''
The dispute is the latest feud between local and federal law enforcement as New West range wars create alliances and enemies John Wayne never would have dreamed of. Recent examples:
- San Bernardino County, Calif., Sheriff Gary Penrod canceled an agreement that gave U.S. Bureau of Land Management officers the ability to enforce state laws on federal land. County ranchers are chafing at grazing restrictions imposed to protect the threatened desert tortoise. Penrod said he didn't want to be associated with ''law enforcement personnel who may be precipitating violent range disputes.''
-The sheriff in Sevier County, Utah, has allowed ranchers to take back cattle that were seized by the BLM after ranchers refused to take them off drought-denuded range in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Sheriff Phil Barney said he wanted to avoid a ''Waco situation'' last November.
-In Klamath Falls, Ore., Sheriff Tim Evinger has mediated a tense dispute between farmers and the Bureau of Reclamation, which cut off irrigation water because of shortages brought on by drought and complicated by environmental rules.
-Last year, residents in northeast Nevada defied a different federal agency, the Forest Service, by taking shovels to rebuild a washed-out stretch of road in Elko County. The Forest Service had ruled that construction would threaten the bull trout. After months of confrontation, uneasy negotiations on a compromise are under way.
On the Web:
Shovel brigade: http://www.jarbidgeshovelbrigade.com
Nevada BLM: http://www.nv.blm.gov
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