Thursday, August 6, 2009

Wilderness hiking can be in a cow/sheep pasture

OK, so you hike in a wilderness and one of the last things you expect to see are livestock.
But that's exactly what there are, roaming in portions of Utah's High Uintas Wilderness area, which rises as high as 13,500 feet above sea level.
The High Uintas have almost 457,000 acres of designated wilderness, which the U.S. Congress approved in 1984.
Now, 25 years later, cows and sheep are still roaming portions of this wilderness each summer.
There are 16 developed trailheads in the High Uintas, with 545 miles of total trails available.
Take the East Fork of the Bear River Trail, which I hiked at the end of July.
The first one-quarter mile of the trail was the Bear River Interpretive Trail, which highlights the history and effects of the June 2002 forest fire there, which some Boy Scouts at the nearby established Scout Camp tragically started.
Then, for another one-half mile, you wander through the blackened forest residue from that blaze.
Next, the trail becomes a huge, unfenced cow pasture, where the predominant smell are cow pies.
Sure, some horses do use this trail, to transport fishermen, outdoors lovers, or even gear, but the bulk of the waste and the hoofprints along this trail are clearly from cows.
At some points, it becomes a case of dodging fresh cow pies on the trail and wondering how many cows and how many times a cow goes to the bathroom each day….
And cow pies are not the only problem. The feet of cattle have torn up sections of the trail in muddy areas and there just aren't enough wooden planks installed to bypass all of this muck.
(This is somewhat reminiscent of the mule problem of waste and odor along the trails inside the Grand Canyon.)
At one point early in this trail, it splits into two parts for a short section. Horses are supposed to go west and hikers east. Other than a river crossing likely being required on that horse trail, I bet it wasn't as "hoofed up" as the hiker trail was. You could tell so many cattle have used the hiker section. That it was one of the muckiest sections of all this trail.
I spotted several cows three miles out along this trail. In fact, I had to hike four miles — most of it clearly inside the designated wilderness area (there are signs along the trail saying so), before the cow waste and odor was finally gone.
Presumably, it was the higher elevation and less grasses that probably deterred the cows after a certain point.
Other than cows, squirrels and birds were the only wildlife I saw on this 10-mile roundtrip hike.
This particular area is also the headwaters of the Bear River, perhaps the most significant river in the Great Basin. Having all these cows polluting the headwaters likely means the Bear River doesn't start out as pure as you might expect.
Kind of amusing too, the signs at the trailhead that stress burying human waste, when these cows run amok all over this section of the lower Uintas.
I've dealt with sheep in the Henry's Fork area of the High Uintas in years past. I recall trying to sleep before and/or after a climb of King's Peak. Using Dollar Lake as a base camp, dinging sheep bells all night is another unexpected wilderness experience.
In the Henry's Fork area, these sheep are up to 10 miles up the Wilderness trail in that area. Sheepherders even have a small camptrailer on the northwest side of that valley.
I don't demand or expect all livestock to be removed from wilderness areas like this, but it would be nice to know the U.S. Forest Service closely monitors their impacts.
Also, would it be too much to ask to have signs posted at wilderness trailheads, explaining the presence of livestock and also for wilderness maps to show you the range of livestock?
All grazing rights that existed before the High Uintas became a wilderness were essentially continued and that's why cattle and sheep are still there, and may be there forever, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Ranchers are also supposed to monitor their own livestock and so essentially it is a self-policing policy.
In addition, there are physical problems with cattle grazing at such high elevations. There's a higher mortality rate for cattle.
(Photos are of a view along the Bear River East Fork Trail and of the junction of the left-hand and right-hand forks that form the Bear River in the Uintas, as the first place the river appears on maps.)

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