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The road sign has been plastered over repeatedly with bumper stickers. The latest says "Public lands grazing\ welfare ranching."

Beneath that, another sticker simply read, "Cows off public lands."Understandably, that doesn't set too well with the cowboys in Garfield County - cowboys who say their generations-old livelihood is under attack by environmental activists who will stop at nothing in their efforts to force cattlemen off public lands.

Last April, 21 cattle were shot to death and shacks used by ranchers were burned in the canyon country south of Escalante. While no arrests were made, the killings have been widely attributed to members of Earth First!, an environmental organization that has advocated the killing of livestock as an acceptable means of removing herds from public lands.

In recent months, at least four cattlemen based out of Boulder have received telephone threats that their cattle would be killed if the ranchers allowed them to graze on public lands, Garfield County Commissioner Louise Liston said.

Cattlemen since have printed 1,000 reward posters offering a "$10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons guilty of the malicious killing of livestock belonging to any Garfield County rancher."

But Garfield County cowboys haven't stopped at old-fashioned reward posters. They are now toting guns. And two-way radios. And they are almost begging someone to "make my day."

That has local law enforcement officers concerned about vigilante justice. But they also recognize the legitimate fears cattlemen have. "If they shoot at someone shooting their cows, they could end up in jail, and they lose their cows besides," Liston said.

"But the cowboys have some strong feelings about what they would do if they came upon someone who was actually shooting their cattle. And it's self-protection as much as anything. If someone is caught in the act, they probably won't want to be taken in. It's hard to make a civil arrest if the person has a rifle in their hands."

Liston, who with her husband operates a cattle ranch, hopes the presence of gun-packing cowboys and the reward money will serve as a deterrent to further cattle killings. But with weather warming up and the hiking and backpacking season set to begin, cattlemen are nonetheless nervous.

Reward notices have not only been posted around Garfield County trail heads but also at convenience stores and service stations all the way to the Wasatch Front.

In addition to guns, at least six ranchers, as well as county road crews, have been armed with two-way radios linking them directly with a deputy based in Escalante.

Ranchers and deputies are also recording the license numbers of vehicles parked in the back country. "If something happens, we would have a lead, maybe a witness," Liston said.

In addition, Escalante residents have organized a neighborhood watch designed specifically to keep an eye on environmentalists who have moved to town but have no visible means of support. "We're wondering how they are living and why they are here. We keep track of anything that looks suspicious," Liston said.

That doesn't set well with some in the environmental community. Mark MacAllister, an intern with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said he was "stunned" by such practices.

"If they are so threatened by the environmental community that they must keep track of our every movement, that's their business. It's unfortunate," he said. "They are not the people who have a right or duty to keep track of who comes or goes in the desert.

"The greater concern might be management of the range and keeping track of how cattle affect range resources. That is more of an issue than who is seeking solitude in the desert."

Lawson LeGate, southwestern representative for the Sierra Club, is concerned the actions of Garfield County officials and ranchers will further harden the relationship between backcountry enthusiasts and the local folk.

"The last thing they should be doing is intimidating people, and that's certainly what it looks like they are doing," he said. "It's a way of keeping people muzzled."

Cattle have been on their desert range all winter, but ice and freezing temperatures have kept most people out of the back country. Ranchers will begin moving the cows off the winter range about April, but not before thousands of backcountry enthusiasts take to the desert.