From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 4, Number 27 - September 30, 2004
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Ecotage or coincidence?

by Cat Urbigkit

Several Sublette County ranchers may have been the victims of monkey wrenching this grazing season, with incidents occurring on public lands in both the Pinedale and Big Piney areas. Monkey wrenching, also known as ecotage, is the deliberate sabotaging or disruption of economic activities in the name of environmental protection.

Ecotage was confirmed in Sublette County nearly 20 years ago when one environmental activist, Howie Wolke, was sentenced to six months in the Sublette County jail by then-justice of the peace Bill Cramer after Wolke was convicted of pulling up survey stakes on a lease road into a proposed drilling location in the Cliff Creek area of the Hoback.

Wolke, co-founder of the extreme environmental group Earth First! now guides guests on trips into the Montana backcountry and Cramer is now a Sublette County Commissioner. Earth First! let its presence in Sublette County be known again three years ago when environmentalists converged on the BLM office in Pinedale and chained themselves to various parts of the building to show their concern over mineral development. The event was closely monitored by the Sublette County Sheriff's Office, but no one was charged in the incident.

This year's incidents, taken alone, appeared to have been random acts. An incident here under one agency's jurisdiction; another incident there under another agency's jurisdiction. There was no agency compiling the acts to see if a pattern was developing, but that may change. The incidents now include the deliberate opening of gates to let cattle onto a highway, the opening of gates to get cattle off their national forest allotment, and now the cutting of wire in a cattle drift fence in 19 places.

This year's ecotage events in the Big Piney area include the deliberate and repeated opening of allotment gates, allowing cattle movement into areas where the cattle are not permitted. Three incidents have occurred to one Big Piney area cattle rancher, with two incidents taking place on Bureau of Land Management allotments, and another on a Bridger-Teton National Forest allotment. Both federal agencies were informed of the matter, as was the Sublette County Sheriff's Office.

SCSO Lieutenant Barty Bardin said Tuesday that SCSO treated the gate opening as a random act, perhaps the actions of someone who either didn't like the permittee or who didn't care about the effect of their actions.

Although a deputy was posted in the area for several nights, no offender was detected. Bardin added that in one incident, the gate loop was pushed off as if it had been rubbed, while the gate wasn't thrown open.

The rancher said that at first he figured that the gate simply hadn't been secured or had been rubbed open by the cattle. But when the action was repeated again and again, with the gates thrown back, it became clear that it was deliberate.

"The opening of the gates is deliberate, the reason is just conjecture," the rancher said.

The latest incident that appears to also be an ecotage incident was investigated by BLM officials on Tuesday when ranchers discovered that the bottom wire on the cattle driveway fence several miles north of the Cora junction had been systematically cut. This is part of the area where there is so much environmental concern for migrating antelope.

"It sure looks suspicious," said BLM's Nick Schultz, confirming that the wire on the fence had been cut in 19 places. In some places the wire was cut and left hanging on the fenceposts, while in other places the wire was cut completely off and cast aside. Schultz said that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department was notified of the incident, but when questioned, acknowledged that SCSO hadn't been notified of the illegal destruction of federal property. Schultz said in light of the other incidents, he would notify Bardin of the wire cutting.

"The only thing we can do is just watch and try to work together if they see anything," Schultz said of the other agencies.

"We'll try to make sure the Wyoming Game and Fish, BLM and law enforcement are all well informed, if people are starting to worry about this sort of thing," Schultz said.

A Daniel area cattlewoman said in an interview Tuesday afternoon that her family's ranch has had problems within the last month as well, with someone opening four gates off the ranch's forest service allotment, allowing the cattle to leave. The gates weren't simply left unlatched, but were laid back against the fence, as is commonly done when all the cattle leave the allotments for the winter. Now the ranch is preparing to ship and finds itself short nearly 80 head of cattle, but has discovered the ranch's allotment has cattle owned by six other livestock producers as well. This cattle mixing is one of the consequences of the open-gate problem, and makes for much work in getting the cattle back to their rightful owners.

The ranchwoman said in talking with other ranchers about the problems, "It seemed to be that it was quite rampant."

At least four other ranches have reportedly experienced similar incidents, with the general consensus being that the open-gate problem is widespread and on the increase this year.

Bardin pointed out that failing to close a gate is a violation of Wyoming Statute 6-9-202, a misdemeanor punishable by six months in jail and/or up to $750 in fines. As for intentional fence destruction, the perpetrator could be punished for either vandalism or destruction of property, Bardin said, with SCSO pushing for the highest penalty.

Who's against grazing?

Anti-grazing group Western Watersheds Project recently became more active in Sublette County, with the announcement last year that the group had opened an office in Pinedale. In reality, there is no Pinedale office, but WWP's Wyoming staffer Jonathan Ratner works from his Boulder-area home.

WWP isn't known for ecotage, although the organization has had its bad relationships with grazing regulators.

A December 2000 article published by High Country News reported that the state office of the Idaho BLM instructed its employees to "turn and leave or hang up" if confronted by WWP founder Jon Marvel, because Marvel was viewed as a threat to BLM employees. Marvel was reportedly verbally abusive to BLM employees, according to the BLM. In the High Country News article, Marvel denied the allegations.

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