How the BLM killed a cow to save a canyon and stop the paperwork

  • Pastel drawing of Chimney Canyon

    Diane Sylvain

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, I came, I saw, I wrote a guidebook.

For 10 or more years she was an orphan trapped in a wilderness prison with no means of escape. Finally, she was spotted and a rescue launched.

Within sight of freedom, she was killed. One bullet to the head.

She was just a "wild" Hereford. She would have died of old age had a Sierra Club hiking group not discovered her in May 1992. Instead, before she died, the lone Chimney Canyon Cow in southern Utah hogged far more than her Warholian 15 minutes of fame. Her plight attracted the attention of people from California to Virginia and generated more than a dozen federal agency reports.

Like the root of most problems, it was her parents' fault. Years ago, her pregnant mother wandered into the Chimney Canyon complex on the San Rafael Swell, the geologic spinebone in the center of Utah. Who owned the cow or where it came from, nobody knows - or will say. A bulldozed mining road led the stray onto a ledge that stair-stepped into the fingers of Chimney Canyon.

With hidden alcoves, oddly textured walls, and mineral leaches that create patterns resembling Arabic script, Chimney Canyon is one of the most beautiful canyons in the swell. It is a little-known place and many hikers would prefer that it remain that way.

After the adventuresome bovine discovered Chimney Canyon, what was left of the road washed away. Surrounded by canyon walls, there was no escape for the expectant mother.

Her calf was orphaned at a young age; what happened to the mother, no one knows.

Chimney Canyon is officially a "wilderness study area." A grazing allotment still exists in the area just below where the cow was found, but livestock operations there ceased in 1988. Yet the lone cow remained and left the impression that a thundering herd roamed the bottoms - according to some visitors.

"It was nearly impossible to find an area of Chimney Canyon where cattle had not wreaked havoc," Robert Bordasch of Boulder, Colo., wrote in May 1992 to Jim Parker, then director of BLM for Utah. "The land around the springs and under the shade trees was completely churned up and destroyed."

BLM had no knowledge of cattle in Chimney Canyon. In June 1992, a few weeks after the Sierra Club trip, range conservationist David Orr rode a horse into the backcountry. According to his report, he saw "no signs of cattle."

Tell that to the Sierra Club national hiking group, led by Hanksville, Utah, resident Steve Allen, author of the book Canyoneering - The San Rafael Swell. Backpackers with him filed more complaints.

"There are wild, non-allotment cattle in the upper end of Chimney Canyon that the BLM should remove as they are very destructive to the riparian (stream bank) habitat," wrote Harvey Halpern of Cambridge, Mass.

Added Glen Buelteman of Sebastopol, Calif.: "We camped for a night in this area and got our water from the stream, only to find later that there was a great pile of cowshit lying in the water just upstream."

In response, BLM's San Rafael Resource Manager Penelope Dunn contacted one of the ranchers who used to run cattle in Chimney Canyon and asked him to remove any strays. But the rancher, whose name was not released, said the canyon was impenetrable.

Since there was no brand on the cow's flank, the BLM decided to legally "impound" the beast if no owner came forward. A formal "Notice of Impoundment" was published in two area newspapers. The cow was now officially a fugitive.

On April 20, 1993, another search was launched after the cow was spotted from an airplane during a wild horse inventory. Five BLM employees saw the cow, but their horses could not cross the washed-out road.

"It will be expensive to get the cow out, but it can be done," reported Orr, the BLM range conservationist. "We do not think that it will be worth the effort to get her out. She cannot reproduce and though she is leaving plenty of evidence of her existence, she is probably not doing damage to the resource."

With the field reports in, BLM Manager Dunn told Sierra Club hike leader Allen that "our staff did not feel any adverse resource damage was occurring as a result of the cow's presence."

Allen responded that the BLM team never went far enough up Chimney Canyon to see the damage the cow was doing. He and others asked why the rancher who last held the allotment should not be responsible for removing the cow.

"I am surprised to hear about the issue of financial feasibility, etc., since it is my understanding that the owner of the cow is responsible for any damage that the cow is doing and for getting it out," wrote Charles Bagley Jr. of Seattle, who sent his complaints on to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Backpacker Allen offered another solution: "With your permission, I would be happy to shoot the cow, perhaps in winter when other backcountry users are not present."

The BLM was reluctant to order an execution. Many employees remembered all too well when 17 head of destructive, unbranded, stranded cattle in Desolation Canyon were shot by BLM officers in 1989. There had been a storm of protest by ranchers with threats of violence made toward BLM bosses who OK'd the action.

Still, the chorus of recreationists calling for an assassination of the Chimney Canyon Cow was getting louder.

"I am infuriated at the failure of the BLM and the rancher who put the errant cow into Chimney Canyon to take responsibility for the ecological damage it is doing," wrote Karen Wood of Missoula, Mont. "Shoot the cow!'

No way, replied Dunn. "I am troubled that destruction is your solution to the problem," the BLM manager replied in September 1993. "This is simply not a choice I am ready to make at this time."

Instead, she called upon "concerned citizens' to volunteer to rebuild the road into Chimney Canyon, allowing wranglers on horseback to lasso the cow and lead her to greener pastures, where she would be sold at auction.

This triggered more paperwork: an Environmental Analysis of the Chimney Canyon Temporary Trail Improvement and Rehabilitation and a Wilderness Interim Management Post Reclamation Period Impairment/Non-impairment Evaluation Form.

By late September, Steve Allen had organized a road-rebuilding team. Two BLM staffers supervised the one-day project and the volunteers left, satisfied they had done a good deed.

The big day had arrived. On Sept. 28, 1993, five BLM employees and a volunteer cowboy ventured into Chimney Canyon and roped the legendary cow just before sundown.

They camped in the canyon, and the next morning began hazing the cow toward freedom. It was not easy.

A veteran cowhand suggested the beast was at least 10, maybe 15 years old. While crossing a ravine, the cow fell. She butted a wrangler who tried to help her up, then panicked and jumped off a four-foot ledge, falling onto her side.

"After some time, the decision was made to put her down," BLM staffer Ruben Conde reported. "In this spot I dispatched her with a single round from my .45-caliber Sig Sauer duty weapon."

Agency officials were unable to provide a price tag for the cow recovery project, but after three search parties, several staff reports and loads of public comment, a 74-page chronology and report was compiled.

Chip Ward of Grantsville, one of the volunteer road-builders, shakes his head at the saga. "Even in Bombay, they aren't this concerned about a cow." Meanwhile, the rebuilt road has washed out and no vehicle can penetrate the canyon. Visitors who manage to hike in report that its vegetation looks healthier.

As for the agency, area manager Penelope Dunn says she is not uncomfortable with what the Bureau of Land Management did in Chimney Canyon. "I would rather have people shaking their heads over how we tried to help the cow," she said, "rather than being criticized for shooting the cow."

As for Allen, he's "absolutely satisfied by the result," although he admits the cow crusade took on a life of its own. Cows, he believes, do far more to harm a wilderness than hiking humans.

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Christopher Smith investigated this story by filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the Bureau of Land Management.

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