It may not be a feud to rank with the Hatfields and McCoys. At least not yet.
San Juan County cattlemen say destructive attacks on their private property, presumably by proponents of elk transplants on the Blue Mountains, have aggravated an already volatile situation."It has really charged the local community," said Rep. David Adams, R-Monticello. "The feelings are running strong on both sides right now."
Cattlemen who oppose the transplanting of 150 elk onto the Blue Mountains have come under attack from sportsmen who want to hunt elk, as well as local environmentalists who oppose cattle grazing altogether.
More than two dozen San Juan County cattlemen, farmers and private landowners have now banded together to appeal the transplant on both the administrative level and in the courts, something that has angered transplant proponents even further.
The dispute has turned ugly in recent weeks. Last month, vandals destroyed three wells belonging to ranchers who have vigorously opposed the elk transplant. Water pumps were cut into pieces, tractor tires were cut and sand was poured into gasoline engines. Other property was riddled with gunshots.
"I'm not saying who did it," said one rancher, "but I find it curious that those who have opposed the elk transplant were the targets of the attacks. Draw your own conclusions."
"It could be coincidence," said another, "but I doubt it. There are some individuals around who don't want cattle in the mountains."
Cattlemen and farmers oppose the transplant, saying an increased elk herd will unfairly compete with their cattle for limited forage. They also say the elk will destroy fences, haystacks and crops on private property that surrounds the Manti-LaSal National Forest.
The state Division of Wildlife Resources and the U.S. Forest Service, however, have announced a joint agreement to supplement the existing herd with 150 transplanted elk, and then let the herd grow naturally to about 1,000. The herd now totals about 150 to 200 animals.
"The 1,000 elk is a benchmark figure," said Grant Jense, big game coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Resources. "We will increase to that point and then determine if it is too many or whether it could handle even more."
When the local Forest Service office decided to approve the division's elk transplant, cattlemen appealed the decision to the regional Forest Service office. When that office upheld the lower administrative decision, cattlemen again appealed the decision to the national level.
No decision has been reached on the national level, but cattlemen are not expecting relief from the Forest Service. Cattlemen have now hired an attorney - a nationally renowned expert in range law - to challenge the elk transplant in court, if needed.
"It's obvious we're not going to get justice from the Forest Service or the wildlife people," said rancher Melvin Dalton. "If we want justice, we'll have to get it in court."
Cattlemen who own grazing permits on the Blue Mountains say the federal government reneged on an agreement made with cattlemen several years ago. Cattlemen drastically reduced the number of cattle on public lands with the promise from federal authorities the cattle permits would be restored, at least in part, once the forage rebounded.
"We have documented evidence that they promised to restore the cuts," Dalton said. "But now they want to give the improved range to more elk instead."
Dalton used to have permits for more than 2,000 cattle on the Blue Mountains. Now he runs 500. "A lot of the permittees were cut by 70 to 80 percent," he said.
"When you look at it in economic terms, these ranchers are really hurt," said Adams, himself a rancher, though not involved in the dispute. "You're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars lost every year because they can't run the cows they used to."
Of even greater concern to local ranchers is the damage the elk could do to private land that borders the Blue Mountains. Only 8 percent of the land in San Juan County is private, but most of it is the lower-elevation farmland where elk spend the winter months.
The existing elk herd is wintering on private land now, and private landowners say expanding the herd to 1,000 animals will magnify the damages proportionally.
"There's nowhere else for them to winter other than private land," said landowner Byron Peterson.
About 150,000 acres of private farmland and some 250,000 acres of private pasture land is being affected by wintering elk herds.
"As the elk herd gets bigger, we have a real concern they will compete for our crops," said Peterson, who often has more than 100 elk wintering on his property. "Our private land can't support a larger elk herd."
Ranchers and farmers are more than a little suspicious about where the existing elk herd came from. That herd appeared about five years ago, and the Division of Wildlife Resources says the herd migrated either from Colorado or from the Manti-LaSals east of Moab.
"If they migrated, they should have migrated before now," said Dalton. "They certainly didn't migrate when the Forest Service didn't want them there. There's no question in my mind it was an illegal plant."
If an additional 150 elk are transplanted onto the Blue Mountains, the wildlife division will initiate an elk management plan to restore forage and pay for damage to private property, said Jense.
Jense said it is yet to be seen whether or not the elk will compete with the cattle, and he sees no reason why elk and cattle cannot coexist. If direct competition adversely affects cattle, the state will deal with the problem when and if it occurs.
"Our goal is to open the elk herd to hunting," he said. "We see elk hunting as part of the multiple-use concept of national forests. By transplanting 150 head, the herd will grow faster, and we'll be able to open it for hunting sooner."