Government shutdown halts tribe’s lawsuit staking claim to 2 million acres of land in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — The ongoing federal government shutdown has halted the Ute Tribe’s lawsuit staking claim to more than two million acres of land in eastern Utah.

The Uncompahgre Ute People Uncompahgre leaders, ca 1868 (Photograph from Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation via Utah State Historical Archives)

In a court filing on Friday, a federal judge agreed to halt the Ute Tribe’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior. Government attorneys said funding for their jobs had lapsed.

“Absent an appropriation, Department of Justice attorneys and employees, as well as employees of numerous other federal agencies, are prohibited from working, even on a voluntary basis, except in very limited circumstances, including ’emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property,'” a court filing states.

The lawsuit accuses the government of basically stealing millions of acres of land in eastern Utah known as “the Uncompahgre.” The Ute tribe alleges in its lawsuit that in the late 1800s, the Uncompahgre band of the Utes were ousted from their lands in eastern Utah and portions of Colorado. However, they claim they were never compensated for the land as promised in mineral, water and grazing rights. The Utes want the land back and roughly a billion dollars in reparations.

A map of the Uncompahgre Ute reservation in the late 1800s. (Image via Utah State Historical Society archives)

The U.S. Department of Interior claims the tribe waived its rights to the land and everything on it under a $125 million settlement agreement in 2012 in another piece of litigation.

The lawsuit has Utah political leaders nervous, with so much land stretching across Duchesne, Uintah and Grand counties at stake. There is also natural resources and state trust lands inside the Uncompahgre.

Members of the Uncompahgre band of Utes in this photo dated 1909. (Image via Utah Division of Indian Affairs)

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has for months now deliberated intervening in the lawsuit, angering the tribe. Governor Gary Herbert has hoped for a quick resolution.

When government funding is appropriated, the case will resume. Until then, deadlines were delayed.

“Although we greatly regret any disruption caused to the Court and the other litigants, the Government hereby moves for a stay of this case until Department of Justice attorneys are permitted to resume their usual civil litigation functions,” the motion stated.

The Ute Tribe indicated to the court it did not object to the delay.

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