A puppet show just finished a 20-year run in southwest New Mexico. I first attended in 1994, when a magazine sent me to the Gila National Forest to inspect damage grazing had done to habitat of Gila trout, our only endangered inland salmonid. Grazing allotments in the Gila and Aldo Leopold wildernesses had been leased to ranchers Kit Laney and his wife, Sherry.

Cattle had nuked the forest. The giant cottonwoods that had shaded and cooled former Gila trout water had expired with the streams. Their sand-blasted corpses lay across dry washes. Riparian grasses had been replaced by rabbitbrush, western yarrow, thistle, pinon, juniper and other plants worthless to riparian fish and wildlife, and even livestock.

In Black Canyon Creek, the last perennial stream in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, I finally encountered fish — Gila-rainbow trout mongrels. The Endangered Species Act required the feds to get the cows out of the stream and restore pure Gilas; but, as usual, the bureaucracy was stuck in neutral. In the wide, eroded section through the Laneys' inholdings and allotment, ragged, bony cows were standing in the stream, urinating, defecating and knocking down the banks. Where the sun hit the water, cow pies had blossomed into enormous gobs of green algae.

The Laneys were angry in 1994, but not as angry as they would become over the next 10 years. Journalists, Kit informed me, are "jackasses," a harsh assessment considering all the fawning press he was getting and would get.

When the Forest Service dropped its plan to gouge out 15 watering ponds for cattle from the wilderness springs that fed former Gila trout streams, the Laneys responded by grazing their cattle without a permit, claiming they owned grazing rights on the public?s land. They ignored citations and refused to pay fines until 1999, when the 10th Circuit Court upheld a ruling against them. At this point, their cattle had been pounding fish and wildlife habitat for 11 years.

Meanwhile, the livestock industry and the property-rights community were hissing into the Laneys' ears, convincing them that public-lands ranchers everywhere were counting on them to establish case law. In 2003, the Laneys filed "declarations of (grazing) ownership," later defined by a federal judge as a "duplicitous attempt to evade the operation and effect of this court's orders."

With that, the Laneys defiantly turned their cattle back into the wilderness. When the Forest Service threatened to round up and confiscate their stock, the Laneys began contacting livestock auction houses, persuading them that they'd be boycotted if they dealt with the government. It worked. Finally, the Forest Service lined up an auction house in Oklahoma and kept the deal quiet.

At the roundup, in March 2004, Kit Laney appeared on horseback. According to court documents, he charged at federal law enforcement officers, threatening them, yelling profanities, lashing them with his reins, knocking down and injuring one of them, and attempting to tear down the fence.

It took four officers and a blast of pepper spray to wrestle him, kicking and screaming, to the ground. For these antics Laney spent six months in jail. Proceeds from the sale of the stock partially reimbursed the government for the roundup, leaving taxpayers $150,000 short.

But the Laneys and their support group weren't finished. Sherry Laney filed criminal complaints against two Forest Service employees who she alleged had illegally transported cattle, an action that last October earned her a $6,409.34 fine for filing a "frivolous and oppressive litigation brought in bad faith."

As legally clueless and hideously ill-advised as the Laneys were, it's a mistake to dismiss them or their saga as aberrations. The story is less their behavior than the behavior of their puppeteers — the grazing and property-rights outfits that encouraged their lawbreaking and funded their failed litigation.

Now, with the couple out of business, Gila trout recovery is turning out to be one of the more impressive success stories of the Endangered Species Act. But what's also impressive — and disturbing — is that two rogue ranchers and their entourage of tacticians, attorneys, cheerleaders and financial backers could push the United States government around for two decades, intimidating resource managers into contravening federal law and destroying fish, wildlife and plant communities on this fragile and beautiful public land.

With lots of time and money you can knock down puppets in the courts, as the Forest Service has just demonstrated. But the trouble with puppets is that there is an endless supply, and they keep popping up, manipulated by the same hands.

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the conservation editor for Fly Rod & Reel magazine and writes from Grafton, Massachusetts.