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McFeely: North Dakota sheriff says he'll deputize citizens against U.S. government

Bowman County sheriff opposes Biden administration conservation plan, says federal government 'stealing land'

Frank Eberle.jpg
Bowman County Sheriff Frank Eberle.
Facebook screenshot
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FARGO — The sheriff of Bowman County, N.D., has pledged to protect his farmers and ranchers against the federal government by deputizing as many of his citizens as necessary to, presumably, act as some sort of local militia.

Exactly why Frank Eberle would need to do that remains unclear, but he seems worried about a proposal by the Biden administration originally called the "30 by 30" plan and later renamed "America the Beautiful." It is an effort at conservation branded clumsily as a way to slow climate change and promote racial equity.

Extremist Trent Loos, a Nebraska rancher who supported anti-government activist Cliven Bundy in occupying public land in Oregon, has been traipsing about the country sounding the right-wing alarm by calling the plan a "land grab." Loos spoke in Dickinson, N.D., recently, a meeting Eberle attended, which led to a Facebook post that was, shall we say, zealous.

"We learned about a dangerous attempt by the federal government to attack our ranchers and farmers by stealing their land, under the name of climate change," Eberle wrote in a Facebook post.

"As your Consitutional Sheriff," Eberle continued, "I stand with our ranchers and farmers, and will deputise (sic) as many of our citizens of Bowman County as necessary to bring a halt to this unconstitutional act."

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It kind of sounds like Eberle is ready to take up arms to keep out invading hordes of federal troops, which should raise eyebrows somewhere (if not Bowman County, population 2,993 in the extreme southwest corner of the state, which voted for Donald Trump at an 84% clip in 2020).

Thing is, the Biden administration's proposal — whether you agree with its goals or not — isn't about federal agents marching into Bowman County and forcibly taking land. It's a voluntary conservation program that would purchase land or obtain easements from willing private property owners, with the goal of conserving 30% of the nation's land by 2030.

I emailed Erbele to confirm he wrote the Facebook post — offering my phone number if he wanted to call and chat — and he responded promptly that he did write it. Erbele also included an attachment of the North Dakota Century Code section that outlined his duties as a sheriff, highlighting the portion that allows him to "command the aid of as many inhabitants of the county as the sheriff may think necessary in the execution of the sheriff's duties."

I followed up with an email calling his need to deputize citizens a touch alarmist and asking for his interpretation of the America the Beautiful plan. Erbele did not respond.

At last report, federal troops were not amassed at the Bowman County border.

Bowman County.jpg
A Facebook post by Bowman County, N.D., sheriff Frank Eberle.
Facebook screenshot

Any plan to take farm or ranch land out of production for conservation is going to be viewed with suspicion by most local residents. It is going to be stridently opposed by the North Dakota Farm Bureau, which has morphed into an operative of the Republican Party. Ask anybody with organizations like Ducks Unlimited or The Nature Conservancy how they are often (not) welcomed in rural communities.

Farm groups and counties want to keep land in production; conservationists want to preserve wildlife habitat. The sides butt heads. It's a tale as old as time.

But Eberle's words looked to go a step further, advocating a posse of locals to keep the federal government from "stealing" land — which the feds aren't advocating.

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Eberle referring to himself twice in the Facebook post as a "Constitutional Sheriff" is a tell.

The constitutional sheriff movement is comprised of members of law enforcement who believe that sheriffs are the ultimate authority in their jurisdiction — even above state and federal law enforcement. The Washington Post reported "constitutional sheriffs assert they have the power not only to enforce the law but to be the ultimate arbiters of what the law is in their counties."

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Think former sheriffs Joe Arpaio of Arizona and David Clarke of Wisconsin.

The movement has roots in white supremacy, but in recent years has been used mostly to thwart federal gun laws and local mask mandates.

Richard Mack, founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, was once a board member of the anti-government, pro-militia Oath Keepers.

How much of Eberle's post was performative and how much was his sincere belief the federal government is going to overrun Bowman County and snatch land could be up for debate, one supposes. Might depend on how literal he takes the phrase "land grab," which are the trigger words Republicans and right-wingers like Loos are using to oppose Biden's plan.

Either way, the idea of a local sheriff publicly threatening to deputize citizens against the federal government would seem alarming in a normal America.

It's 2022, though, which pretty much kills the idea of anything being normal.

Opinion by Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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