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Old West showdown? Freeway cattle drive pits Utah ranchers against state

MORGAN — Longstanding and bitter disputes between government and ranchers in the West are becoming increasingly normal, pitting grazers against "bureaucrats" who they say are acting to drive them out of business.

The ranchers' combatants in high-profile cases that boiled over in recent years in Nevada and Oregon are federal agencies.

In pastoral Morgan County, a ranching family's enemy is not some Washington, D.C., controlled agency, but the state of Utah.

The Charles Pentz family intends to trail their 90 head of cattle east on about an 8-mile section of I-84 from Morgan to the Devils Slide area at Croydon early Thursday — a cattle-moving tradition they say they have engaged in each year, twice a year, since at least 1951.

Their attorney, Aaron Bergman, said the state recently put up a concrete barrier over the cattle guard at an on-ramp to prevent access to the interstate and block the trailing.

Steve Pentz, Charles Pentz's son and executor of the estate, added the state has threatened and harassed the family over the years to get them to stop the trailing, which moves mother cows and their calves to summer grazing on land at a higher elevation.

"We are going to take them up there in the morning and trail them up the freeway," he said Wednesday. "I guess we will see what happens. That is the only thing we can do."

In the past, when the ranchers moved their cattle over the Utah Department of Transportation's objections, Bergman said state troopers showed up anyway to provide traffic control for the three-hour event.

No one is quite sure what will ultimately unfold Thursday, but Steve Pentz said he's had troopers show up at his home in the past, threatening to arrest him if the cattle drive is carried out.

"I asked them on what charges, and they told me they could just do it," he said.

Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Todd Royce said he's unaware of any incidents involving Pentz and troopers, but said his agency will provide traffic control for the safety of motorists and the ranchers. Typically, one lane on the eastbound interstate is kept open.

This year's trailing of cattle has threatened to become more confrontational, in Bergman's view, because of a lawsuit the Charles Pentz Estate filed in April suing the Utah Department of Transportation.

"(The Utah Attorney General's Office) indicated to me pretty emphatically that UDOT will not remove the barriers and that basically the estate is on its own, which we take as a very spiteful move because these barriers were never in place until the litigation was filed," Bergman said. "It is an inappropriate and vindictive move on the part of the state."

UDOT spokesman John Gleason said he could not comment on the allegations raised against the state and its dealings with the Pentz family due to the pending litigation.

"Our primary concern is for the safety of the traveling public, and for those operating the cattle drive," he said.

Stormy history

The Pentz family has been in negotiations with the transportation agency for years over moving their cattle on the interstate.

Seven years before I-84 was constructed, Charles Pentz trailed cattle on Highway 30 until it was torn up and paved over to make room for the widened transportation corridor in 1958.

Bergman said the Pentz family was adamant over maintaining access.

"There were meetings back in the '70s when this became an issue," he said.

By 2005, the state decided it lacked any legal obligation to allow the cattle trailing to continue, but two years later, the Department of Commerce's Office of Property Rights Ombudsman declared in an advisory opinion that Utah was required under a 1998 state law to provide an alternative route.

The Utah Attorney General's Office, arguing before the district court that the lawsuit should be dismissed, stressing that the advisory opinion does not carry the weight of law and is therefore inadmissible.

A few years later, transportation officials and the Pentz family were negotiating transporting the cattle by truck instead of moving them up the canyon the traditional way.

According to Bergman's lawsuit, UDOT agreed to pay the transportation costs for the cattle, but then balked after asserting the costs were too high. Another year, the agency said it would find its own trucking company to move the cattle at its expense, but haulers never showed up, the suit asserts.

Bergman said disputes over costs continued into 2013, when the department embarked on a feasibility study to assess how much it would cost to build an 8.5-mile trail as an alternative route between Stoddard Ranch and Lost Creek Ranch.

The Pentz family, in fact, prefers to trail the cattle rather than truck them, especially given the stress on the calves.

"It is a lot quicker and easier if we trail them rather than truck them," Steve Pentz said. "When we truck them, it is an all-day operation into the night, compared to three or four hours."

The costs of an alternative route, according to the suit, came out to be $77,000 per mile.

The state, however, is arguing before a district court judge in Morgan County that it is not required to build such a trail. Attorneys insist the 1998 law is discretionary, not mandatory, and it has no obligation to provide access to I-84 because it is now a restricted access highway that — as an example — the state has declared off limits to off-highway vehicles and pedestrians.

But the Pentz family maintains the law is clear about the state's obligations. The law says when state highways with heavy traffic are regularly used for the movement of livestock, the transportation agency and the involved county or city governments "shall construct and maintain" livestock trails.

"The way we look at it is they built the freeway over our stock trail," Pentz said.

The state has fired back with multiple legal arguments, including statute of limitations having run out, assertions that the suit was filed wrongly to exclude Morgan city and Morgan County, and claims denouncing the estate's ability to bring an action.

As the wrangling has gone back and forth over the years, the trailing of the cattle always seems to continue in a tradition the family says they want to pass on to the next generation.

"It's a sad situation they are in," Bergman said. "It is sad that the state and UDOT have not simply owned up and done what the Legislature demanded they do. Instead they are repeatedly trying to weasel out of it."


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