PHOENIX – An Arizona rancher who fought for years to retain sole use of his "Bar 7" cattle brand won a big victory Thursday in the Arizona Supreme Court when the court ruled the state did not have the legal right to let another cattle company use it to brand its cows.
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The unanimous court ruling said the state violated a decades-old law that bars an identical cattle brand from being used by two ranchers.
Rancher David Stambaugh called the decision that also awarded him his attorneys fees "awesome."
"After 5 years — jiminy Christmas — unbelievable," he said.
Stambaugh, 50, has owned the Bar 7 brand since he was 10, when a retired rancher who was friends with his family sold it to him along with 10 cows for $10. He operates a farm near the small city of Eloy 65 miles (105 kilometers) south of Phoenix and runs about 30 head of cattle on land near the tiny town of Winkelman.
Stambaugh objected when the state Agriculture Department allowed the Eureka Springs Cattle Co. to use the identical brand in a slightly different part of its cows' bodies. The company also had operations in California, where it has rights to the same brand.
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Eureka Springs owner Roger Warner said he wanted to be able to send his young cattle from Arizona to California so sought the same brand in Arizona.
Two appeals court judges said in a ruling last year that the department had the discretion to issue the brand because it was to be placed on the cows' left rib area and Stambaugh branded his cows on the left hip. One judge said registering identical brands was not legal.
The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Robert Brutinel, said there was no discretion allowed.
"The statute clearly provides that a brand with an identical design or figure may not be recorded," Brutinel wrote.
Stambaugh said in an interview after the Court of Appeals ruled last year that that leaving the lower court ruling in place would lead to confusion and questions about ownership at livestock auctions and other places where brand inspectors check cattle ownership.
Under the lower court ruling, the state could issue identical brands for six different spots on a cow, left and right hip, rib and shoulder. If cows were transferred to another rancher with the same brand, it could wreak havoc at an auction, Stambaugh said.
Warner said Stambaugh's concerns were unwarranted.
"Everything that Mr. Stambaugh said was going to happen hasn't happened — we haven't had one problem at all," he said.
Warner first tried to register the brand more than five years ago, and the department's brand clerk twice rejected the effort because it was the same Bar 7 brand, according to the Supreme Court's case summary.
Eureka Springs then enlisted the help of the Arizona Cattle Growers' Association. Warner and the association executive director Patrick Bray then went to the department together and the clerk issued the brand in 2012.
Stambaugh praised the clerk, saying she "did her job, but was forced not to do it."
Bray said he did not know the brand request had been turned down earlier and did not exert influence or choose one rancher over another.
Warner, who runs hundreds of cattle on a ranch between the small southeastern Arizona cities of Safford and Willcox, said that before the new ruling Colorado was the only other state prohibiting using the same brand in different places on cows.
He said he met with Stambaugh several times to try to negotiate a deal, but Stambaugh refused.
He said after the ruling that he will probably have to rebrand hundreds of cows.