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Cut cattle fences puts spotlight on unauthorized forest trails

POCATELLO – Land managers hope a barbed-wire fence under construction in the Caribou National Forest's Mink Creek Area will keep cows away from several popular trails while also protecting 2,000 acres within a sensitive watershed.

That vision, however, has encountered complications: Unknown trail users have already cut the unfinished cattle fence in two places, seeking to maintain easy access to unauthorized trails crossing the fence's path.

Chris Colt, a wildlife biologist with the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, now faces a dilemma. His agency recognizes Southeast Idaho's growing reputation as a destination for mountain biking and outdoor recreation and installing cattle guards could avert future damage to the fence.

However, many of those trails have created resource challenges — crossing through riparian areas, contributing to erosion and disturbing wildlife — and building cattle guards or bike ramps would send the message that the Forest Service condones their existence.

Colt hopes to start a dialogue with trail users to get a handle on the rampant unauthorized trail construction and to educate the public about the headaches that arise when fences are cut.

"How can we get some of these trails approved and get them reconstructed so we address resource concerns and others get closed?" Colt said. "It's fun to build a new trail, and after it's in for a while, they get bored with it, and a lot of these aren't constructed to a resource standard. You end up with a spiderweb network of trails everywhere, and it really changes the landscape."

Just over a mile of the planned 3.5-mile fence in the Mink Creek Area near Pocatello has been built. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has funded fencing materials, at a cost of about $12,000 per mile.

Colt explained the fence includes four strands of wire and is 40 inches tall — short enough for big game to jump over it and designed to prevent them from getting their feet tangled in it.

The bottom strand is 16 inches off the ground and has no barbs so smaller animals can walk beneath it. It's designed to be turned flat when cattle leave for the winter, preventing damage from snow drifts.

Once complete, the fence will protect the area from cattle owned by three ranchers within a single allotment.

Colt said informational signs, social media posts and public meetings with stakeholders are all approaches his agency may take to tackle the problem. The Forest Service is in the process of filling a vacant recreation program manager's position and addressing the user conflicts will be among that new worker's top priorities, Colt said.

He said law enforcement may also be an option, though "we're not going to that right away."

Several years ago, members of a Forest Service grazing working group discovered cattle were grazing where they weren't permitted to be — within the upper portion of a designated sensitive watershed spanning from the West Fork of Mink Creek to the Gibson Jack area.

Volunteers from the city of Pocatello and the Forest Service worked with juvenile offenders, beginning in June, to build the first portion of the new fence.

Hannah Sanger, manager of the city's Science and Environmental Division, served on the grazing working group.

Sanger said grazing has been restricted in the area since the 1970s to protect water quality for critical municipal water rights on West Fork and Gibson Jack.

The city once diverted surface water from the creeks for culinary purposes and may do so again, if growth eventually necessitates construction of a surface water treatment plant. The city currently uses those rights for irrigation.

"Protecting those rights is very important for the city," Sanger said. "The side benefit of the fence is the entire Elk Meadows Loop would be free of cows, so it would provide a recreation benefit."

Sanger would like trail-builders to start collaborating with land managers to avoid similar problems in the future.

"Let's talk about what trails are good trails and what trails are bad trails," Sanger said. "Just continuing to build trails is not serving anyone's long-term interests."

Colt said he brought in logs to make temporary "walk-throughs" to enable recreationists to access the illegal trails, but the fence was cut, nonetheless.

Repairing a cut involves stretching the wires back 200 yards and splicing them back onto poles.

Fence-cutting by users of unauthorized trails is a growing problem on public lands near population centers, said Cameron Mulrony, executive vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association.

"If every day when a homeowner went to work somebody walked by and opened the back gate to their yard and allowed their dog to run out in the street, that would be an aggravating scenario to any homeowner," he said. "Recreation is a use that is expanding on public ground, and a lot of the times when people are recreating, they see those fences as a barrier, when in fact they're a management tool for other multiple uses."