BOISE — A House committee has approved a bill that would further codify in state law a landmark Idaho Supreme Court decision on who owns stock watering rights on federally administered land.
Siding with two Owyhee County ranchers in a case known as the Joyce Livestock decision, the court ruled in 2007 that the federal government can’t own those rights because it doesn’t own cattle and therefore can’t put the water to beneficial use.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the ranchers filed overlapping claims to those rights during the Snake River Basin Adjudication.
Because those rights were deferrable, which means there is no time limit on filing for them, most ranchers chose not to file for them during the SRBA.
But the federal government did and during the SRBA, the adjudication court decreed up to 20,000 stock watering rights to the BLM.
The Idaho Legislature last year passed a bill that codified the Supreme Court decision in state law and set up a process by which ranchers can file for those claims.
House Bill 603, authored by Rep. Judy Boyle, a Republican rancher from Midvale, would require the director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources to send a letter to the federal agency requiring it to “show cause” to the department why the rights should not be lost.
If the BLM can’t do that, the rights would be forfeited.
Boyle said the fact that those rights haven’t been forfeited by BLM has created a gray area for cattlemen who are unsure of what will happen if they file for them.
Boyle said the court was clear that the federal government doesn’t own those rights.
“The facts are, the federal government doesn’t own livestock and can’t put (the water) to beneficial use,” she said. “They haven’t used it, so legally they forfeited it. But we still have to go through the” forfeiture process.
The House Resources and Environment Committee voted unanimously Feb. 19 to send the bill to the House floor with a “do-pass” recommendation.
Rep. Mike Moyle, a Republican rancher from Star, said those “show cause” letters should have been sent to the federal government a long time ago.
If the tables were turned and ranchers had lost the court case, “I believe every one of those ranchers would have received a letter,” he said.
“Those letters should have gone to the federal government a long time ago,” Moyle said.
Boyle’s bill also says that if the federal government ever acquires a stock water right, it shall never be used for any purpose other than watering livestock unless otherwise approved by the state.
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation Director of Governmental Affairs Russ Hendricks told Capital Press the Joyce Livestock decision was a huge victory for livestock owners and he applauded efforts to further codify the Supreme Court decision in state law.
“It’s precedent-setting across the West,” he said. “The federal government is obligated to follow state water law.”