Saddle Sore: More to rancher saga than meets the eye |

Saddle Sore: More to rancher saga than meets the eye

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It’s starting again, the rancher-government conflict in the western part of the United States. If you recall, a man named Cliven Bundy refused to pay his grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management, claiming the federal government had no business controlling what Bundy believed to be state-owned land.

Yeah, there were guns involved and Bundy’s cattle were confiscated (and then released) and it’s still an unsolved issue that bears more arguing, but it doesn’t appear either side has the appetite, at least not at the moment. Bundy is alleged to owe more than $1 million in back permit fees and fines, but to this day he is still running his cattle on BLM land without payment. Keep in mind that all other late payments to the BLM, in the entire U.S. combined, total only about $300,000.

Bundy may have had a good point, and I was rooting for him for a time, but I guess the glare of the camera lights and the feel of importance made him believe he was a special person. He began spouting off his personal beliefs about race and work habits and government assistance and the legitimacy of his cause disappeared like powder snow on a weekend morning. Guys like that give ranchers everywhere a bad name, no matter the rightfulness of their point.

This is all to say that Bundy’s son, Ammon, is back in the fray, only this time in Oregon, with a bunch of rabble-rousers who have chosen to ride to infamy on the backs of the Hammond family of Oregon who, unlike any of the Bundy bunch, probably have a true grievance against the federal government. Say what you like and believe what you want about the entire Hammond affair, but when the federal government appeals a lower court decision and overrides the jail sentences for an infraction, accuses local landowners of terrorism and turns respective sentences for three months and another for one year (already served) into five-year minimum sentences for both, that smacks of federal prosecutors with vituperative, little-boy egos out to prove a point. Sore losers, I’m thinking, trying to drive a ranching family out of business.

It’s easy to sit in the pristine Roaring Fork Valley, nearly devoid of cattle ranchers and their herds, and pretend that the men in Oregon and Nevada are in the wrong for complaining. But before you get too far into that thought, you should be reminded of the Mantle family; Colorado settlers since 1919 in an area now surrounded by Dinosaur National Park. The Mantles had their own experience with the federal government (over a period of 50-some years) as evidenced by communications between federal agents clearly acknowledging they were trying their level best to run the Mantles off of their land. We can thank the Freedom of Information Act for bringing such abuse to light.

In 1960, the National Park Service gave the Mantles exclusive grazing rights in the park, in perpetuity, without interference from the federal government. Shortly thereafter, the National Park Service began to manipulate conditions of the permit, known as regulatory whittling, saying the Mantles’ behavior was inconsistent with federal vision and requirements. Without staging a militia-style protest, the Mantles quietly fought the government in court, year after year, spending more than $500,000 of their own money and living everyday literally under the watchful eye of the National Park Service.

A few years ago, thanks to help from the Moffat County commissioners, who upheld the legitimacy of the grazing permits, the Mantles managed to sell their ranch with the grazing rights still intact. The Mantles, in the end, had been driven off their land by the federal government.

Back to Oregon: In the past few days, members of the Burns Paiute Reservation have expressed displeasure with Ammon Bundy and his takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, claiming (incorrectly) that the occupied land belongs to the Burns Paiutes and that Bundy and his crew should go home. Maybe they should, but Charlotte Rodrique, tribal leader of the Paiutes, needs to be reminded that the federal government stole that very land away from the Paiutes in the late 1870s. One of those broken-treaty deals. Her group is allowed on the land only at the pleasure of the federal government, which could jerk the rug out from her and her fellow natives at any moment. The Paiutes might then have cause to rethink their position and join the protest against egregious behavior by the feds.

Some talking heads have said that the federal government wouldn’t be so tolerant toward a minority group, such as blacks or Muslims taking over federal property, and would quash the rebellion right away. If you think about it, ranchers are a true minority, making up less than 2 percent of the total population. Hard to call “white supremacy” on a group that small, and clearly, ranchers are at risk.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at