Raymond Yowell is my friend and a well-respected rancher who lives with his wife on the Shoshone Reservation at Lee about 20 miles south of Elko. At 89 years old, Raymond, for most of those years has owned his own cattle and contributed to the economy and well-being of Elko County.
Raymond is an intelligent guy with a good understanding of the history of his people and their dealings with our federal government. His understanding is so good that when he made his arguments before a Federal District Judge in Reno, representing himself, without an attorney, he won. The case he argued was brought regarding a claim of trespass the Bureau of Land Management made against him. Back in 2002, neither the Reservation nor the BLM were fenced. Raymond’s cattle could not use his range without being able to wander off the reservation onto the BLM.
Nevada is an open range state, which means if you don’t want someone’s cattle on your land you have to fence them off. That doesn’t apply
to the federal government but these were not just “someone’s cattle,” there is a sovereignty attached to the reservation where the cattle came from. Nevertheless, after BLM sent Raymond repeated notices to keep his cattle off BLM managed land, they decided to impound them, which they did and then sold the cattle for pennies on the dollar keeping the money as a trespass fee. They sold 136 cows and calves for $27,440. BLM called it an intentional trespass so the revenue was not nearly enough to cover the fine assessed against Raymond and by compounding the interest over the years his bill to the BLM is now $509,906.72.
It was in 2002 when Raymond found himself before Judge Jones at Federal District Court in Reno where he made the winning argument that his case should proceed because the federal government was in violation of Indian treaties, charters, and acts that declared the Western Shoshone are “herdsmen” and “agriculturalists” and that the federal government had a duty to preserve the Western Shoshone as a guardian and trustee of their land and culture. Thus, fining a Western Shoshone herdsman for not building a fence to “protect” federally held land was in direct violation of the United States’ government duties and agreement with the Western Shoshone.
Of course the Feds were not willing to accept that verdict so they appealed the Jones decision to their favorite court, the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco. For this go-round Raymond hired a lawyer but alas, predictably he lost and the court costs left him broke. Now the feds asked themselves, “What do we do now? We have this Native American, in his mid-eighties, we have taken his cattle and all of his money but he still owes us money — what to do? “ Then it dawned on someone that he must be getting a Social Security check, so since 2008 they have been taking part of Raymond and his wife’s Social Security every month. Ironically, the Feds’ withholding of Raymond’s Social Security must be where the BLM got some of the money to build a fence in 2014 between the Western Shoshone and BLM land, which would have kept the cows off the BLM land in the first place.
There is a federal law (31 U.S.C. § 3711) which allows the U.S. Comptroller General or the head of an executive agency, like the BLM, to forgive an assessed debt that is unlikely to be paid. Raymond made a request six months ago for relief but has had no response. Was the decision by the Federal District Judge in Reno the correct one or was the one by the three-judge panel at the ninth circuit the right one? And if Raymond had the resources to do so and had been allowed to appeal the ninth circuit decision, how would it have turned out? We don’t know but I think
we should all be able to agree, enough is enough. A debt of over a half million dollars — for what? It’s too late to make the Yowells whole but it is time to wipe the books clean and give them a little peace.