For the past few years, a herd of at least 30 feral cattle has taken up residence in the remote lower canyons of Escalante River, a fragile desert riparian zone inside two of Utah’s marquee protected landscapes.
These cows, or their moms, likely once belonged to ranchers who hold permits on neighboring lands, but the animals escaped from their home herds and are now happily reproducing in sensitive areas that are closed to grazing, according to Bureau of Land Management officials. However, the agency is hesitant to unilaterally rid the lands it manages of stray cows, which are technically the property of the county.
In this case, Garfield County has grudgingly taken on the complicated task and has contracted with wranglers to return the cows to civilization, preferably unharmed.
Harry Barber, BLM’s Paria River District manager, praised Garfield for cooperating with federal land managers and taking the lead, but county leaders remain annoyed that an easier solution was nixed.
“The Escalante River is pretty wild, pretty remote. We do have legitimate permittees that graze livestock in the area,” said Harry Barber, BLM’s Paria River District manager. “The Escalante is not open to grazing and these folks know that, so they do their best to keep their livestock out of there, but if cows get away and wander down in there, it is difficult to get them out.”
The cows are moving between Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, according to Mike Popejoy of the Grand Canyon Trust. The lands in question are federal grazing allotments that the trust paid to retire about 20 years ago with the aim of allowing these lands along the Escalante to return to a natural state.
Some of the cows, which are being monitored with trail cameras, appear to be tagged or branded, but many are unbranded, Popejoy said.
The group is frustrated that it went to great expense to close those allotments only to see bovine visitors again roaming through fragile riparian areas, this time with zero oversight. Environmentalists are dismayed because the vast majority of the national monument is grazed. Having cattle-free areas enables federal land managers to compare the health of lands within the monument that are grazed and ungrazed.
That benefit is lost with the presence of stray cattle. In a recent interview, Popejoy made it clear that the trust never asked anyone to shoot the cattle, but he wants the animals out.
“There shouldn’t be cows there,” Popejoy said. “It’s been more than a year, maybe a couple judging from the number of unbranded cows. Clearly, they are reproducing, and the herd is getting large.”
County Commission Chairman Leland Pollock, a Panguitch businessman who hails from generations of ranchers, is frustrated with the whole situation, which he attributes in part to the Grand Canyon Trust’s unwillingness to maintain the miles of fencing that were put up decades by past permittees.
“One of the problems you have with these allotments that are bought up by these folks that use it for political reasons or whatever, you have to maintain the fences,” Pollock said. “We’re talking miles of fencing. If you don’t maintain fencing, you are not going to hold cattle. They’re going to go where they want to go.”
Among those places are Harris Wash, Fence Canyon and Horse Canyon, according to Popejoy, who disputes that fences are the trust’s responsibility.
“Those areas are closed and cows are getting down there from both sides of the river,” he said. “It’s challenging to have fences that are functional when there are floods every year.”
Pollock’s preference would have been to allow ranchers on adjacent allotments to mingle their cattle with the feral ones and pull them all out together later this year.
“The way to do that with wild, feral cattle is to put them with other cattle that are domesticated. They’re calm. You don’t have all the problems with feral cattle,” Pollock said. “It’s hard to catch feral cattle, let’s face it. It’s like going out and catching elk.”
Ranchers had volunteered to retrieve the feral cows, but the BLM rejected their proposal, according to Pollock.
“They were going to go down there and put these cows with their cows for a couple of months and then just kind of ease them up out of there. Easy. Period. Problem solved,” he said. “They didn’t accept that offer. For whatever reason, I don’t know why they wouldn’t use common sense in an issue like that.”
Enter Preston Grover, a Blanding-based wrangler who has experience retrieving stray cattle off remote public lands in San Juan County.
Under his deal with Garfield County, Grover assumes most of the expense of searching for and driving the strays out of the backcountry. The work will have to be done mostly on horseback because the cows are in areas where motorized use is not allowed. Grover will return branded cattle — in exchange for a fee — to the ranchers whose brands the cows wear. Unbranded cattle will be Grover’s to keep or sell as he sees fit.
“It will take multiple trips. It could be a year or two before we can get them all out,” Grover said. “It is so far from anywhere. It’s very isolated. It is going to be a daunting task.”
He won’t start until fall so the job can be done in cooler weather. Summer temperatures would be too hard on the cattle, and the dogs and horses Grover uses.
The cattle are to be extricated from Escalante side canyons, about a dozen miles from the nearest road access off the Burr Trail. Round trip for the dogs and horses would be as much as 24 miles.
“You’re not going to get much money from the time we put in. That’s not why I do it,” Grover said. “I do it for the adrenalin.”
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