Nevada rancher and former Shoshone chief's range war with BLM predates Bundy standoff

Long before Cliven Bundy faced down federal agents in his dispute with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing rights, fellow Nevada rancher Raymond Yowell, an 84-year-old former Shoshone chief, watched as the BLM seized his herd.

Adding to that, since 2008 they've taken his money as well -- in the form of a piece of his Social Security checks.

Yowell's 132 head of cattle had grazed for decades on the South Fork Western Shoshone Indian Reservation in northeastern Nevada until 2002, when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) -- the same agency at odds with Bundy -- seized them. The federal agency sold the cattle at auction and used the proceeds to pay off the portion of back grazing fees it claimed Yowell owed. Once the cattle was sold, the agency sent Yowell a bill for the outstanding balance, some $180,000. They've been garnishing his monthly Social Security checks since 2008 to satisfy the debt Yowell says he does not owe.

"There’s a definite pattern in the West, beginning in the 1990s, maybe in the late '80s, of what I feel are illegal cattle seizures," Yowell said. "[Bundy's case] is the latest example of that pattern.”

While Bundy is defying the federal agency over fees for grazing cattle on government-owned land, Yowell's cattle had roamed reservation land. But a 1979 Supreme Court decision held that even land designated for Indian reservations is held in trust for them, and thus subject to BLM regulation. Yowell says treaties that led to creation of the reservation granted him and other herdsmen the right to graze cattle on the land, which they did successfully for decades. The Western Shoshone say they have never relinquished their right to the territory.

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Yowell represented himself in a successful effort to win a federal injunction to stop the BLM from impounding his cattle, as well as a subsequent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that reversed the lower court. He's again representing himself in a petition to have the U.S. Supreme Court hear his case, in which he argues his cattle were taken without due process and in violation of multiple treaties.

“Certainly, due process of law has not been followed in my case,” Yowell told “When we were kids going to school, learning the white way, we said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning and one of the things I remember saying is ‘equality and justice for all.’ Well that’s certainly not the case.”


Celia Boddington, a BLM spokeswoman, said she had no comment on the pending case. But the BLM has previously said the tribe’s Te-Moak Livestock Association held a federal permit to graze cattle on the public land from 1940 to 1984, but had stopped paying required fees in 1984, when it asserted the tribe rightfully owned the land.

Last week, the U.S. Solicitor General's Office, which represents the federal government in disputes before the Supreme Court, was granted an extension in Yowell's case even as the Bundy situation was making national headlines. Federal attorneys are due to file a response to Yowell's petition for a writ of certiorari on June 4.

While the Bundy case is not exactly the same as Yowell's, the parallels are obvious in the The Silver State and beyond. Bundy’s dispute, like Yowell’s, dates back decades to when the government designated the scenic Gold Butte region, where Bundy's cattle graze, as protected habitat for endangered desert tortoise and slashed his allotment of cows. He then quit paying grazing fees to BLM, which canceled his grazing permit and ordered him to remove his 380 cattle.

Yowell said he sees some “commonality” between his fight and Bundy’s, but stressed his claim to the land is further strengthened by the Treaty of Ruby Valley of 1863, which formally recognized Western Shoshone rights to some 60 million acres in Nevada, Idaho, Utah and California. In 1979, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the treaty gave the government trusteeship over tribal lands and could eventually claim them as “public” or federal land.

“His feeling is that he’s acquired certain rights and now his rights are being violated by the Bureau of Land Management,” Yowell said. “But I have Indian rights, treaty rights that he doesn’t have.”

Yowell, who has separately sued the BLM and the Treasury Department for $30 million, said the U.S Treasury Department began garnishing his Social Security in 2008 check at BLM’s behest.

“They’re entitled to take up to 15 percent of what I get,” said Yowell, who receives $962 of what should be an $1,150 check per month. “And that’s what they’re doing.”

Yowell, who retired in 2006 and turned what remained of his ranching business over to his 50-year-old son, said his legal fight is his "legacy," even though it has already left him with a jaded view of the white man's government.

“It’s diminished my feeling, my view of the government,” Yowell told “They don’t practice what they say.”