The recent cattle impoundment by the Forest Service offered a troubling glimpse into the ever-increasing challenges facing ranchers in our region.

It was troubling on the surface because of the fact that one livestock owner had left a bunch of cows to fend for themselves on the public land for up to two years, regardless of the fact that he had no permission to do so. That left the rightful permittee, already facing scrutiny from environmentalists, to take the rap for any damage done by the at-large cows.

Equally troubling was the expense of the roundup, which the agency said was nearing $10,000 last week, before the cows had even been taken to Vale for auction. Officials note that impoundment is done in only extreme cases, so such expense is not apt to be repeated soon. A spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, which has plenty of expertise in grazing issues, noted that most ranchers would look at their cows "as dollar signs on hooves" - an asset to be protected. A warning or two should suffice to get errant cows corralled in most cases, he said.

But the case also offered a glimpse of a more insidious problem facing cattle ranchers. On the same allotment where the trespass cows were making themselves at home, someone had cut the fences intended to keep cattle out of sensitive riparian areas. Forest officials say they don't know who cut the fences or why. One possibility is that it was recreationists annoyed at fences blocking their way.

Ranchers confirm that they've seen similar damage to fences on both private and public land, especially during horn-hunting season and the summer ATV-riding months. However, they say there's another possible explanation: ecosabotage. Area ranchers say that in some instances not only have fences been cut, but salt blocks have been moved to lure cows into forbidden territory. The reason for such an act could only be to set up the permittee for failure and discredit the Forest Service grazing program.

So we can add ecosabotage and criminal mischief to the list of troubles dogging the rancher's life. Whether the damage is by recreationists or environmental crusaders, this kind of activity is misguided and amoral, and it threatens the viability of an important local industry. It's just too bad that the perpetrators are even tougher to round up than the trespass cows impounded earlier this month.

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