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Miles from the nearest town, Edgar Dunham runs his herd of 40 cattle across a rugged stretch of the Kaiparowits Plateau.

A second-generation cattleman, Dunham is a reluctant martyr in the dispute between southern Utah grazers and vandals who threaten the cattle industry on public lands. His plight is one sign of changes simmering in the state's rural regions, areas where residents struggle to absorb the impact of their newfound popularity.Four of Dunham's animals were found dead last month along Willow Creek near the Paria River in an isolated pocket of adjacent Kane County's backcountry. He holds a state grazing permit for the region. Area ranchers are more than willing to attribute the dead cattle to those who, armed with an agenda, maliciously destroy property.

"I've had a trouble with (people) going through there and leaving the gates down and tearing down the fences," said Dunham, 71. "But I never did have them killing things."

The Cannonville man lost nearly two years of work and the more than $3,000 the cattle would have brought at auction. If the cattle were intentionally killed - which is what most area ranchers and the case investigator suspect - they believe it's yet another attack on rural ranching, something the grazers in southern Utah won't accept it sitting down.

"We don't have any bird-in-the-hand proof, but we sure have some strange things a-takin' place around here," said Bob Ott, president of the East Fork Grazers Association.

"Sooner or later, someone is going to get apprehended. The right conditions are going to come together," said Ott, 64, a veteran rancher. "When they're molesting and killing livestock on the range, that's one thing. When they're rustling it is another. Rustlers don't do it that way."

Dunham had checked his herd within a day or two before the four cattle were found dead.

"A guy from over around Kanab area takes a horseback trip up through the Paria (River) and goes up Willows Creek. He was the one that found them," Dunham said. "I ran down the next morning and I found three. He'd said it looked awful suspicious, the way they were. That's the way I figured too."

Dunham, who also has a permit to graze cattle on the Dixie National Forest, later learned another dead cow was spotted lying several yards away, making a total of four dead cattle.

"A helicopter pilot that flies Bryce (Canyon National Park) . . . well, he flies down through that Paria every once and a while - right down through the canyon - and said he had seen four head," Dunham said. "I went down and, sure enough, there was another one right there in the creek. I thought, Now there's something funny going on here."

Among the southern Utah ranching community, Dunham's loss has reopened deep wounds. In 1990, a line shack was burned and 15 cows and six calves were shot at close range with a small-caliber gun and left to die on their range in the Escalante River drainage.

A $25,000 reward was posted for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. Leads in the case eventually dwindled, but the memory of the vandalism remains for the ranchers.

In Dunham's case, a summer flood washed the cattle carcasses away before an investigator could determine if they were shot or died of natural causes. Yet their location - the three of them found in a creek bottom surrounded by high ground and the fourth within several yards - and the unusual circumstance of healthy cows dying at the same time suggest foul play, according to Jeff Banfill, a former Kane County sheriff's lieutenant who investigated the case.

"Normally, they're isolated incidents," Banfill said of past cases of dead cattle. "It could be kids from town out there partying and tearing things up. It's hard to say. But with this particular go-around, it seems to be a little more than that. Normally, kids - when they are vandalizing things - they'll leave some stuff laying around the ground. We're not seeing any of that."

Typically, if cattle are found dead in a group, ranchers first suspect lightning or disease. Dunham has had cattle killed under a tree in a lightning storm. But these animals died on low, treeless ground, with several feet between each carcass. Dunham also said the cattle appeared healthy in the days before they were found dead.

Ranchers doubt the deaths were natural and are seething that someone would have such disregard for private property.

"All of the ranchers around here are familiar with the country," Ott said. "We know a lot of these nooks and corners, and we know where our livestock run. We're familiar with the areas so it's easy to detect something that comes up unusual. That's why this incident with Edgar, it just didn't add up as an act of God. It was an act of intent by somebody to steal cattle and try to get back at the rancher through killing livestock to run him off the range."

To urban dwellers, the loss of four cows may seem relatively unimportant - an expense of doing business. But to a small-operation rancher like Dunham, four cows can be the profit in a not-so-profitable business.

"Edgar raised these cows from calves," Ott said. "He has an investment of feed in them - his hay and all his care . . . Those are things that are hard to measure. When you put capital outlay into a critter, you can have 600 or 800 dollars involved in one from the time it's conceived until it reach that age (2 years old).

"We're just small operators down here," Ott said. "But this livestock operation has been in Edgar's family since his father came in and homesteaded. There's three generations involved in those cattle that were killed. They've had other things that has helped them make a living, but still, that's been the cement that's held them in this country."

While ranchers are shaken that someone would wantonly kill their livestock, they have more than enough evidence to substantiate other complaints of vandalism. All too often, the vandal leaves a message.

A Tropic man was railing brush on private land last summer when he found his truck vandalized and a note left behind. It said: "You can't do this on my land . . . I'll be watching" and was signed, "God," according to Banfill.

More recently, a vandal systematically cut each wire binding together a decades-old pole corral in the backcountry, he said. During recent years, there have been several cases of line shacks burned and incidents of apparent arson at ranch cabins.

That people easily recall the details of these events for years is not so unusual. Such crime is conspicuous in towns where any police activity reported in the local newspaper is regularly bumped by news of an impending wedding or visit from out-of-town family. So, when a man's cows are found dead and foul play is suspected, it's almost a given that the locals would rally.

"We know that some of us are going to be victimized again," Ott said.

"It kind of makes you wonder when you're out there in the wilds what you're going to run into," he said. "We're just not used to this. A rattlesnake is one thing - we're always watching for them. But we can live with them. This other thing, we can't live with this."

That sentiment is what causes law officers to take seriously any suspicious activity in the isolated patches of the county.

Kane and Garfield counties together measure more than 9,500 square miles - nearly five times the size of Delaware. Peace officers must patrol a massive area, one that's predominantly rugged, largely inaccessible desert favored by cattle and, sometimes, vandals.

The isolation also contributes to a delay in reporting cases of vandalism and threat. Officers often hear of such incidents months after they occur.

"An incident will happen and they write it off to well-that's-strange-but-that's-one-of-those-things and the guy right downstream . . . might have a similar situation and they won't talk about it maybe for six months or a year," Banfill said. "The vandals are not targeting a specific cattle operation. They're just out there doing random acts of vandalism. If they would report these things right away, there's a chance we could still maybe catch one of these people in the area.

"These cattlemen have been doing this for hundreds of years and there is just no way they can be out there watching their herd all the time. They're pretty much easy victims," Banfill said. "What worries me is, God forbid the day that one of them does catch somebody out there messing with their herd. Because we probably won't hear about that either . . . "