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Federal judge rules in favor of rancher in grazing case

Ag Alert, California Farm Bureau Federation 6/5/13

In a federal court case that has been watched closely by livestock producers in California and throughout the western United States, Chief Judge Robert C. Jones of the Federal District Court of Nevada issued a 104-page ruling protecting Western ranchers' grazing preferences and finding conspiracy by federal agents to deprive ranchers of vested property rights.

The decision stems from a 2007 trespass case, U.S. v. Hage, brought by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management against Nevada rancher Wayne N. Hage and the estate of his father, E. Wayne Hage.

In its documents, the USFS and BLM alleged that between January 2003 and August 2007, cattle were observed 52 times on federally managed grazing land.

In handing down his decision, Judge Jones said there were only two incidents of minor trespass by the cattle and granted damages of less than $200. No punitive damages were awarded because the instances of cattle trespass weren't carried out "oppressively, fraudulently or maliciously," the judge wrote.

The judge also stated that employees of the two federal agencies overstepped their authority in their dealings with the Hages.

Specifically, Jones found, "The government has abused its discretion in the present case through a series of actions designed to strip the estate of its grazing permits, and ultimately to strip defendants of their ability to use their water rights."

He explained, "Substantive due process protects individuals from arbitrary deprivation of their liberty by government."

The judge added that "the government cannot withdraw them (grazing permits) or refuse to renew them vindictively or for reasons totally unrelated to the merits of the application as governed by published laws and regulations, lest the government abuse its executive power in a way that shocks the conscience."

Judge Jones reasoned the trespass notices and demands for payment were meant "to pressure other parties not to do business with the Hages, and even to discourage or punish testimony in the present case." The court noted such demands for payment were even issued to witnesses "soon after they testified in this case."

The judge also found Tonopah BLM Manager Tom Seley and Forest Ranger Steve Williams to be in contempt of court, and referred the matter to the U.S. attorney for possible prosecution for criminal obstruction of justice. Noting that Seley and Williams knew of ongoing litigation between the parties in the court and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, they "took actions to interfere with the defense of the present trespass action by intimidating witnesses," the judge said.

Jones went on to rule that Hage is required to apply for a grazing permit, but the judge also required the government to grant it. The judge enjoined the government agencies from issuing trespass or impound notices to Hage or anyone leasing cattle to him without permission from the court to issue such notices.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.



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