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Amid escalating tensions over federal land management, eight Utah ranchers on Saturday pledged to disavow their contracts regulating their use of public land to graze their cattle.

The men made their declarations at a "property rights" workshop in Cedar City, just days before the illegal occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge took a tragic turn with the death of Arizona rancher Robert "LaVoy" Finicum on Tuesday.

Back in November, Finicum addressed a packed meeting of a Piute County ranchers association, urging those present to follow his lead of taking control of their grazing lands under the rationale that these were not public lands, but ranchers', by rights of years of "productive beneficial use."

On Saturday some of these ranchers agreed to sign notices of "withdrawal of consent" to be governed, in essence rejecting the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service's authority to regulate use of their grazing allotments.

"This is as an act of civil disobedience in response to a long trail of abuses," said Todd Macfarlane, a Kanosh attorney who had helped organize the Cedar City event and follow-up gatherings in Idaho and Montana. "They aren't going to go out and plunder the land and the resources. They are saying, 'We are exercising our liberty to exercise personal choice for our ranch and do it responsibly.' "

These ranchers recognize they have "a right" to pay grazing fees, which they will deposit in escrow accounts until the ownership of Utah's public lands is resolved, Macfarlane said.

Ranchers who use public lands are required to pay $1.69 per animal-unit month, or the amount of forage consumed by a cow-calf pair in a month. This fee covers only a small fraction of the cost of administering the grazing program, leading critics to complain taxpayers subsidize ranchers and grazing's impact on public lands.

The Tribune interviewed Macfarlane on Tuesday evening, before news of the Malheur arrests broke. Macfarlane has represented Finicum, the lead spokesman among the armed Malheur occupiers, led by Cliven Bundy's sons Ammon and Ryan.

Finicum died while authorities were arresting the Bundys and three others — including Kanab resident Shawna Cox — Tuesday as they traveled to a community meeting miles away from the refuge. Finicum was one of the drivers.

Macfarlane has injected himself as an intermediary between the Malheur occupiers and the public in recent weeks, but he contends the ranchers' action on Saturday has only passing connection with the confrontation in Oregon. He is now leading property rights forums around the West, and characterized Cedar City's gathering as a "dress rehearsal" for a larger gathering, "Storm Over Rangelands," this Saturday in Boise, Idaho.

The chief speaker at these events is Angus McIntosh, a former rancher and an adjunct professor of agriculture at Texas A&M University. Another planned speaker, Utah rancher Jon Pratt, took part in the Oregon standoff. The meetings are hosted by the Utah group National Federal Lands Conference, which opposes environmental regulations and champions property rights.

"We are giving [attendees] tools for them to understand what their rights are," said Macfarlane.

The "withdrawal of consent" action was inspired in part by the re-incarceration of Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, according to Macfarlane. Other ranchers at Saturday's gathering were not comfortable making such a pledge, he said, but many did agree to sign "a redress of grievances" outlining a generic list of complaints that ranchers have with federal agencies.

He didn't divulge many specific abuses, but he did highlight ranchers' chronic frustrations with BLM's failure to control wild horse populations, which many allege result in reduced stocking levels, and fear of BLM law enforcement. Ranchers fear that Dan Love may kick their door in if they speak out, said Macfarlane, referencing the controversial special-agent-in-charge of BLM law enforcement in Utah and Nevada.

Conservationists recorded some of McIntosh's Saturday remarks before they were ordered to leave when the meeting reconvened in a private session where the ranchers were given pledges to sign.

Macfarlane declined to name the ranchers.

"They haven't authorized me to disclose who they are. I don't think they necessarily have anything to hide," Macfarlane said.

Meanwhile, right-wing social-media maven Cherilyn Bacon Eagar posted a group photo of seven of the men on her Facebook page.

WOW! Eight Utah ranchers join other ranchers in the West to sign letters of intent to withdraw consent to be governed by...

Posted by Cherilyn Bacon Eagar on Saturday, January 23, 2016

"Historic day! Share. God bless these Great American Cowboys. If you support them and helping the Hammond's [sic] who have been falsely accused and are in jail, please LIKE and SHARE," Eagar wrote in her post.

In a new post, Eagar compared Finicum's death to "ISIS-style executions," even though witnesses say Finicum, who had been frequently photographed wearing a sidearm during the Malheur occupation, was charging police when a state trooper opened fire. Finicum's family claims he was shot with his hands in the air.

Macfarlane said the ranchers' action should not be interpreted as a gesture of solidarity with the Malheur occupation or an endorsement of Cliven Bundy's practices.

But according to Eagar, the actions of Ammon Bundy and Finicum helped inspire others "to join the growing movement to sign letters of intent to withdraw from being managed by the BLM."

Bundy was planning to attend the Boise event, according to a text message Finicum sent Eagar on Tuesday only a few hours before he died.

Brian Maffly covers public lands for Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at or 801-257-8713. Twitter: @brianmaffly