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Rancher: Both sides failed in range battle

Nevada rancher Demar Dahl knows his range law almost as well as he knows his own cattle.

An Elko County commissioner and longtime conservative Republican political activist, Dahl is a member of the board of directors of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association and the Nevada Land Management Task Force, the latter of which seeks to bring vast stretches of our public lands under state control.

He considers himself a staunch ally of Cliven Bundy, who has just won a round in his battle with the Bureau of Land Management over control of hundreds of his so-called “trespass cattle” in the Gold Butte area near Mesquite. Bundy’s story attracted national media attention and hundreds of protesters from as far away as Florida, some of them armed members of civilian militia groups. The BLM over the weekend agreed to release the approximately 400 cows it had rounded up and had intended to have removed from the federal land they’ve been grazing on illegally for many years.

If anyone can feel the beleaguered rancher’s pain, it’s a man like Dahl. But while some members of the public are on his side, he makes his argument with a religious zeal, and he appears to have temporarily shaken the BLM’s ham-handed grip, that doesn’t mean Bundy is on stable legal footing, Dahl says.

Bundy continues to argue, mostly in the press, that the federal government has no jurisdiction over the land on which his cattle graze. But federal courts have consistently dismissed that argument, and on July 9, 2013, U.S. District Judge Lloyd George signed an order permanently enjoining Bundy from running cattle on the disputed land. Judge George’s order was emphatic.

“In sum,” he wrote, “in his most recent effort to oppose the United States’ legal process, Bundy has produced no valid law or specific facts raising a genuine issue of fact regarding federal ownership or management of public lands in Nevada. …”

Walking into a federal court and arguing that the federal government doesn’t have jurisdiction in a case involving federal land isn’t likely to go far. And Bundy had been making the argument for the better part of two decades. By 1998 the courts had ruled against him, and still he kept riding in the same legal direction.

“He had his neck bowed and had his mind made up, by golly, wouldn’t stray from his position, which is that the feds don’t own the land,” Dahl said. “So he didn’t pursue that, and it’s too bad that he didn’t.”

But Dahl notes that Bundy might benefit from following Nye County rancher Wayne Hage, who won a protracted battle with the federal government by successfully arguing that he had the right to graze his cows within 2 miles of water sources he developed.

“The Hage case, it went on for over 20 years,” Dahl said. “And the Hage case, and this case are very similar because the Hages ran without a permit for a long time. It was either do that or pull out and give up.”

Bundy was made aware of Hage’s legal strategy years ago, Dahl said, but chose to pursue a different route that has led to a drubbing in court.

While he doesn’t endorse Bundy’s legal argument, he said there’s no excuse for the BLM’s menacing but clumsy tactics.

“Well, they certainly are flexing their muscle,” Dahl said Sunday a few hours before Bundy’s cattle were released by the embarrassed agency. “It was a great overreach on the part of the government. … I can’t imagine who was advising the BLM for their tactics for doing this. I just wish Cliven had taken a different direction. But it may not be too late yet.”

The battle over Bundy’s cattle is likely to continue on the range and in the courts.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Contact him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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