Widow fights for grazing rights
A year after her husband Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was fatally shot by police after a standoff near Burns, Oregon, his widow Jeanette is continuing her fight against the Bureau of Land Management over grazing rights for the family’s cattle herds. … more >
By Valerie Richardson – The Washington Times – Thursday, January 26, 2017
Ten months after her husband was killed in a standoff with the federal government, Jeanette Finicum was driving her cattle to their winter range in Northern Arizona when she received a message from the Bureau of Land Management: Keep off.
She was told she could not pasture her cows on the grazing allotment she inherited upon the death of her husband, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, even though she had turned in her application and written a check for fees and fines before making the 50-mile trek.
“We were in the middle of the cattle drive [in October] when we got word that they were not accepting my check,” said Ms. Finicum. “I had to stop because my attorneys didn’t want me to be out of compliance, and I had to find somewhere else to put my cows.”
She was stunned. “Here I am, in the middle of the desert with 150 cows, going, ‘Where am I going to go?’” she said.
Ms. Finicum, 56, was able to move her cattle to her sister-in-law’s pasture, but she still has a problem on her hands. She fears the directive may be more than a bureaucratic snafu, that federal officials want to wrest her grazing rights in order to discourage other ranchers from challenging land-management policies, as her husband did.
“I believe it’s because of his stand and because of what happened in Oregon,” Ms. Finicum said, referring to the armed takeover of a federal wildlife reserve. “They want to make an example out of him. They want to make sure people don’t do this again by taking my ranch away from me. It’s like, ‘Here’s what will happen to you if you don’t behave.’”
LaVoy Finicum was killed Jan. 26, 2016, at an FBI roadblock as he and other protesters drove to John Day, Oregon, to meet with a local sheriff.
A readily recognizable figure in his white cowboy hat and glasses, he had served as a spokesman for the several dozen armed occupiers who took over a vacant federal building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in a protest against federal lands policy.
A county sheriff’s investigation ruled the shooting justified, noting that Finicum, 54, had a pistol in his jacket when he jumped out of his vehicle after veering off the road. A video taken from a plane shows he may have been reaching for his weapon, but his supporters say he was trying to surrender.
Ms. Finicum has since immersed herself in running the ranch from their home in tiny Cane Beds, Arizona, about five miles from the Utah border. Even so, she may be the most recognizable figure in the public lands movement not named Bundy, thanks to the international coverage of her husband’s death.
She made a rare public speech at a rally in March at the Utah state Capitol, where she told a crowd of several hundred that her husband of 23 years had been “assassinated.” Her next appearance comes Saturday in John Day, where she plans to host an event called “the meeting that never happened” to mark the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death.
Topics on the agenda include the wrongful-death lawsuit expected to be filed by the Finicum family, as well as the Portland jury’s not-guilty verdict in October against seven occupiers, including leaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy, on federal conspiracy charges stemming from the 41-day occupation.
‘They never said a word’
J. Morgan Philpot, one of the Bundy attorneys, is aiding Ms. Finicum in her fight to keep her winter range, known as the Tuckup Allotment, a pasture used by ranchers for more than 100 years that her husband purchased the rights to from the previous owner in 2009.
Mr. Philpot said she should inherit the allotment rights under Arizona and federal law, “but for some reason the BLM has made a choice to obfuscate and avoid rather than working with Jeanette to ensure that her permit remains in effect.”
A BLM official declined to offer specifics on the case. Last month Arizona spokeswoman Amber Cargile told the Tri-State Livestock News that the agency “recognizes that Ms. Finicum is a personal representative of her late husband’s estate.”
“The BLM has been working with Mrs. Finicum and her legal counsel on issues related to both the fees associated with her husband’s estate as well as the future of the permit,” said Ms. Cargile. “Due to the ongoing nature of these discussions, we’re not at liberty to provide additional details at this time.”
She also said the agency had been in contact with Finicum attorneys “in an attempt to resolve fines associated with a nearly yearlong grazing trespass on the Tuckup Allotment.”
Ms. Finicum said she paid an “outrageous” trespass fine last year of more than $20,000, incurred after her husband moved cows onto the range four weeks early in August to take advantage of the grass before it died. Such transgressions are not unusual, she said, but the BLM’s reaction was.
“There were other years he went on early, and they never said a word,” Ms. Finicum said. “It was OK to go a couple weeks early. They’re making a stink to get me off, period, and to make an example to the rest of the ranchers here in the West that, ‘If you put up a fight, you’ll be out of business.’”
A few months before heading to Oregon, Finicum had announced that he would start sending his grazing fees to the county instead of the federal government, the same tactic used by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in his longstanding legal battle with the BLM.
Despite that, Ms. Finicum said her husband died before he could follow through, meaning his account with the BLM was still paid in full.
She said local rangers have been helpful, but decisions on the matter are apparently being made above their pay grade.
“It would have been settled within a short period of time had it been under the control of our range cons (conservationists) here,” she said.
Alone on the range
Under federal rules, Mr. Philpot said a spouse has two years to complete the transfer of grazing rights, and that the rights can be extended for another two years if probate drags on. During that time Ms. Finicum should be able to graze cattle on the Tuckup Allotment.
He worries that Ms. Finicum may be up against not only lingering ill will against her husband but also the political winds. Environmental groups such as the Western Watersheds Project have led the fight against grazing on public lands, a stance that enjoyed support during the Obama administration.
The BLM manages 245 million acres of public lands, with 155 million for livestock grazing. Ranching on public lands has declined from 18.2 million animal-unit months [AUM] in 1954 to 8.6 million in 2015, a 53 percent drop, according to the agency.
“If you have a policy that is opposed to grazing, and you have rights that go back 100 years, and you want to disrupt those, how do you do it? How do you get somebody off a piece of land when they have a right to be there?” said Mr. Philpot, a former Utah state legislator.
“In this case, I think what they’re doing is they’re making it so difficult for Jeanette that her permit cannot be renewed,” he said. “And then they’re going to say, ‘You don’t have rights anymore here.’ And she’ll say, ‘Why not?’ And they’ll say, ‘Because you didn’t renew your permit,’ and she’ll say, ‘But you wouldn’t let me.’”
Months after she was forced to reroute her cattle, Ms. Finicum feels as frustrated as she did that day in the desert, surrounded by her cows with no place to go.
“What is a person like me supposed to do? This is what I had to wrestle with in the desert when I was halfway to my allotment with my cows,” she said. “Am I to go there to use the grass that I paid for that’s rightfully mine and use that water that’s rightfully mine, or do I try to fight them in court? Do I try to negotiate with them? Do I try to continue to reason with them?”
One thing she refuses to do is give up her life as a rancher.
“This is my property. This is my family’s property,” said Ms. Finicum. “We are not criminals, and we should be allowed to operate our business as we have done so in the past.”