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A well-known Four Corners-area environmental activist and her husband face criminal charges stemming from a confrontation with San Juan County ranchers over a closed gate.

The charges accuse Rose Chilcoat of disrupting a livestock operation, but the conservation advocate's colleagues suspect the Durango, Colo., couple are the target of a political witch hunt rather than a legitimate law enforcement probe.

While Chilcoat was visiting Lime Ridge on April 1, her husband, Mark Franklin, shut the gate to a rancher's corral, "denying his cattle access to water," according to a news release issued by San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge this week.

The couple were charged Tuesday with a variety of counts, including "attempted wanton destruction of livestock," a second-degree felony, against Franklin, 61.

Reached by phone Friday, Chilcoat declined to comment.

Chilcoat's supporters say they are baffled by the charges because a section of the corral fence was down, so the cattle were never prevented from reaching from the watering trough.

"I'm quite surprised that the San Juan County Sheriff's Office filed criminal charges and then put out a press release over a gate being left shut," said Shelley Silbert, executive director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness. "I'm deeply concerned that these charges could be politically motivated retaliation for Rose's efforts over the years to bring stronger protections to public lands."

A phone message left with County Attorney Kendall Laws was not returned Friday.

Silbert said Great Old Broads doesn't condone disruption or harassment of cattle, although the group and others document range conditions and pass information to land managers if they see misuse by livestock permit holders.

Chilcoat, 58, is a former longtime staffer with Great Old Broads and founding board member of Friends of Cedar Mesa. She is the activist most associated with the closure of Recapture Canyon to motorized use and has been an outspoken critic of County Commissioner Phil Lyman for his role in the 2014 illegal ATV ride through the canyon. Lyman was convicted of federal trespassing and conspiracy charges and served 10 days in jail, although his conviction remains on appeal.

Recapture's closure in 2007 enraged Blanding locals who enjoyed riding the archaeologically rich canyon, and many blame Great Old Broads, the first group to document damage caused by an unauthorized ATV trail. Locals have waited ever since for the Bureau of Land Management to rule on the county's right-of-way application, a decision that finally arrived this week.

Laws filed the charges against Chilcoat and Franklin on Tuesday, the day after the BLM rejected the application in a decision that also refused to allow motorized trails along the canyon bottom, although it did authorize trails on the rim.

The April 3 confrontation involving the two is described in The Petroglyph, a right-wing blog run by Lyman's co-defendant in the Recapture prosecution, Monte Wells said.

Wells characterized the couple's conduct as "an act of environmental terrorism" and alleges Chilcoat was caught "red-handed endangering livestock" and "cruelly harassing" cattle, although there is no evidence Chilcoat touched the corral.

The trouble began April 1, when ranchers discovered a gate closed on the corral on Lime Ridge, located on state trust land off U.S. Highway 163 inside the new Bears Ears National Monument near Comb Ridge. A motion-triggered trail camera mounted on the corral captured images of the alleged miscreant who closed the gate, according to Wells' account.

Two days later, Chilcoat and Franklin returned to the site, and this time ranchers Zane Odell and Zeb Dalton recognized their truck from the images. They used their vehicle to block the road out and confronted the couple.

Sheriff's Deputy Jay Begay was summoned and he took statements from those at the scene. His report provided the basis for the charges.

Both Chilcoat and Franklin are accused of misdemeanor trespassing on state trust lands. Chilcoat is also charged with providing false personal information for identifying herself to Begay using her married name.

The trespassing charge is noteworthy because state trust sections in San Juan County are scattered around like square islands in an ocean of public lands, making it hard for visitors to know whether they are on state or public land.

Laws cited in the charges would require prosecutors to prove the couple intended to "halt, impede, obstruct, or interfere with" the livestock operation or that they damaged property belonging to the operator.

Twitter: @brianmaffly