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Supreme Court settles cattle fight reminiscent of the old West

Rancher David Stambaugh stands inside one of his cattle enclosures as he awaits an Arizona Supreme Court decision on whether the state can allow an identical cattle brand to be used by two ranchers Thursday, Aug 3, 2017, in Eloy, Ariz. Stambaugh has owned the Bar 7 brand since he was 10 years old, but the state Agriculture Department allowed a California cattle company to use the same brand. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Rancher David Stambaugh stands inside one of his cattle enclosures as he awaits an Arizona Supreme Court decision on whether the state can allow an identical cattle brand to be used by two ranchers Thursday, Aug 3, 2017, in Eloy, Ariz. Stambaugh has owned the Bar 7 brand since he was 10 years old, but the state Agriculture Department allowed a California cattle company to use the same brand. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

In a fight reminiscent of the old West, it’s now official: Two Arizona ranchers cannot have the same brand for their cattle.

Only this battle was fought not with guns but with lawyers, the ruling came from the Arizona Supreme Court, and the rancher on the losing end didn’t end up dead.

But there is another loser in the multi-year battle: the Arizona taxpayers who are picking up the legal tab.

The fight involves a decision by Eureka Springs, a California operation, to move its cattle to Arizona.

Those animals already bore the “bar seven” brand, essentially a dash and a numeral 7. So, the firm applied to the Arizona Department of Agriculture to register that brand here.

Only thing is, Eloy rancher David Stambaugh already had recorded that brand. So, the state agency’s clerk rejected Eureka Springs’ request.

But that was overruled by supervisors because the Eureka Springs cattle are branded on their left rib, while Stambaugh brands his cattle on their left hip. Both a trial judge and the state Court of Appeals sided with the Department of Agriculture. So, Stambaugh took his case to the state’s high court.

In legal arguments, attorneys for the Department of Agriculture argued that the agency was free to consider that the different location of the brands allowed both to be recorded. But Justice Robert Brutinel, writing for his colleagues, said what the Department of Agriculture did violated the law which says that “no two brands of the same design or figure shall be adopted or recorded.”

What that means, the justice said, is that anything else is irrelevant. He wrote that the statute “is unambiguous and does not include location.”

Anyway, Brutinel said, allowing location to determine to whom a steer belongs would undermine the very purpose of the branding law.

He said it would reduce a “misapplied” brand – one inadvertently placed on a different location on the animal – to being an “unrecorded” brand. And Arizona law makes the use of an unrecorded brand a crime, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Brutinel acknowledged that when ranchers register a brand, they must also include the location where the animal will be marked. But, he said, there’s a good reason for that: It can prevent theft.

“Requiring ranchers to specify the location of their brands makes it more difficult for a thief to modify or replace a valid brand because the thief must pass what effectively is a two-prong security test: a matching design and a matching location,” Brutinel wrote.

“Even if the thief is able to modify one brand design into another, it must still be in the required location,” he continued. “Additionally, specifying the location of the brand helps the Department (of Agriculture) and other ranchers know where to look to be able to quickly identify an animal’s owner.”

But none of that, the justice said, overrules the plain language of the law that a rancher with a unique brand is entitled to ensure he or she is the only one in Arizona using it.

The ruling means the state will reimburse Stambaugh for his reasonable legal fees in fighting the case all the way to the state Supreme Court.

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