Then the U.S. Bureau of Land Management sent Yowell a bill for $180,000 for back grazing fees and penalties, and later garnished part of his Social Security benefits.
Now, nearly a decade later, the 81-year-old former chief of the Western Shoshone National Council is fighting back. He’s suing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Treasury Department and others for $30 million. Yowell claims the government violated his constitutional rights, broke an 1863 treaty and saddled him with a debt that he doesn’t owe.
“There’s no other way,” said Yowell, a member of the Te-Moak Band of Western Shoshone, who still works a small cattle ranch with his son in northeast Nevada’s high desert.
“I kept writing letters to them saying I didn’t have a debt with them, that I never signed a contract,” he told The Associated Press. “But they just ignored it. There’s no use talking to them.”
Yowell said in the lawsuit filed earlier this month he was exercising his “treaty guaranteed vested rights” to be a herdsman when he turned his cattle out in May 2002 to graze on the historic ranges of the South Fork Indian Reservation.
BLM officials said the tribe’s Te-Moak Livestock Association held a federal permit to graze cattle on the public land in northeast Nevada from 1940 to 1984, but had quit paying the fees to the BLM in 1984, claiming the tribe held title to the land.
Despite earlier federal and U.S. Supreme Court decisions against them, the Indian leaders asserted then — as Yowell does today — that the land is still theirs as dictated by the Treaty of Ruby Valley of 1863.
Under the treaty, the United States formally recognized Western Shoshone rights to some 60 million acres stretching across Nevada, Idaho, Utah and California. But the Supreme Court’s 1979 ruling determined the treaty gave the U.S. government trusteeship over tribal lands, and that it could claim them as “public” or federal lands.
A related court battle continues over the legality of the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act of 2004 that directed more than $145 million be awarded to tribe members in exchange for relinquishing any claims to the land — a matter that has divided the estimated 10,000 remaining Western Shoshone people.
BLM officials said at the time of the seizure of Yowell’s cattle that the Te-Moak livestock association owed about $2.5 million in unpaid grazing fees and fines. They said Yowell’s share of the debt was $180,000.
Nearly 10 years later, Elko lawyer Julie Cavanaugh-Bill wasn’t surprised to hear that Yowell made the eight-hour round trip to Reno earlier this summer to gather the forms he’d need to act as his own attorney and file his 15-page civil complaint in U.S. District Court.
Cavanaugh-Bill is married to a cousin of Yowell’s. She met Yowell when she started working for the Western Shoshone Defense Project, an organization formed by the tribe’s national council in 1991 to help protect its cultural and spiritual traditions on a host of legal fronts, from challenging mining projects to fighting plans for a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain.
“He’s got as much spunk as when I first met him,” said Cavanaugh-Bill. “He is a very wise, intelligent, well-spoken individual who has an incredible knowledge about the history of the Western Shoshone people, but also the history of land issues and treaty issues.”
In his lawsuit filed July 20, Yowell accuses the government of violating his right to due process, his civil rights and his constitutional protections against unwarranted seizure of property when BLM seized his cattle on May 24, 2002.
He said he’s refused to pay the money because he wasn’t given an opportunity to explain why he believes he doesn’t need a permit to graze his cattle on “historic grazing grounds.”
“I looked at it as an illegal seizure,” Yowell told AP. “They took cattle without a court order. Now they are taking from my Social Security check.”
Since April 1, 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department has been garnishing 15 percent of his Social Security check at the direction of the BLM.
“I’m supposed to get about $900 a month,” Yowell said, “but I’m only getting $779 because they take $137.”
BLM spokesman Doran Sanchez said agency lawyers had not had a chance to review Yowell’s lawsuit and had no comment.
The seizure of Yowell’s cattle nearly 10 years ago came as the BLM and U.S. Forest Service were stepping up enforcement of grazing regulations as drought conditions lingered across Nevada and much of the West.
“There was a lot of turmoil then. The feds were being very aggressive,” recalls Janine Hansen, a national committeewoman for the Independent American Party who worked with Yowell as fellow members of the Nevada Committee for Full Statehood.
The statehood committee, a strident property rights group that refuses to recognize federal jurisdiction of land in Nevada, was at the forefront of an unconventional anti-federal alliance that united conservative ranchers, Western Shoshones and even leaders of the American Indian Movement.
Yowell retired in 2006 after nearly 30 years as chief of the national council. He said he leaves most of the heavy lifting to his son these days at his ranch on the edge of the Ruby Mountains where his parents first settled in the 1930s. He said he doesn’t know if he has a chance to prevail in his case that will pit him against Justice Department lawyers.
“We’ll see,” Yowell said.
Hansen wishes him luck, but “the odds are so overwhelming.”
“That’s the problem with David and Goliath,” she said. “David never wins.”