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In elk poaching case, a glimpse of a simmering land conflict

An Oregon rancher is charged for an elk slaughter.

 

On Feb. 11, Sergeant Chris Hawkins of the Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division came upon a gory scene. Dead elk in different stages of decomposition were strewn across the snowy ground on a ranch owned by Pam and Larry Harshfield in Wallowa, Oregon. Hawkins and his fellow officers, led there by an anonymous tip, counted 12 corpses on the Harshfields’ property, and 13 on the neighboring property. No attempts had been made to salvage the meat, and the bodies had been picked at by eagles and coyotes to reveal bones and organs.

Two months later, Larry Harshfield was arrested and charged with 12 counts of unlawful take of elk in a closed season, and 12 counts of waste of elk. In a press release, Pam Harshfield maintains that the couple had no choice. The harsh winter brought hordes of hungry elk to their haysheds. The elk ate hay intended for their cattle, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife wouldn’t help out, she said in a statement, leaving them out of options. 

The crime, investigation and impending trial have revealed tensions over Oregon’s elk management and over land management in a region that just last year saw a 40-day standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge between federal agents and anti-federal government protestors over supposed government overreach.

A herd of Rocky Mountain elk moves up the ridge above Camp Creek in Northeast Oregon.
Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife/Flickr

For the last 40 years, the Harshfields have run cattle and grown hay on their 450-acre spread, located just outside Wallowa, a burg of 800 people nestled between the granite mountains of the Eagle Cap Wilderness and the grasslands of the Zumwalt Prairie. In years past, elk and other wild game were rarely a problem, as hunters kept populations in check. Over the past few decades, however, elk populations in Oregon have ballooned. In the area where the Harshfields live, ODFW says this is due to landowners limiting hunting access on private land. In a written statement, Pam Harshfield, who did not admit to their involvement with the slaughter, explained they became frustrated with that increase. Twenty years ago, a small herd of 15 to 20 elk began visiting their ranch. The herd grew over the years, reaching around 200 this last winter by the Harshfields’ estimates. But by then, the elk were eating directly from their haysheds.

As is the case of all big game animals, management of elk falls under the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Two years ago, the Harshfields sent the department a $10,000 bill for the hay eaten by elk; they got no response. Unlike in neighboring states like Washington and Idaho, in Oregon private property owners are not compensated for losses incurred by elk. ODFW will give property owners alfalfa seed, fencing and netting to keep elk away. They have three elk feeding stations in eastern Oregon to try to deter the ungulates from entering haysheds during the winter. They also offer mitigation tactics like hazing permits, emergency hunt tags and kill permits to private property owners. The kill permits require the owner dress and deliver the meat so it can be distributed to needy families. The Harshfields, who have a hazing permit, turned down a kill permit because it was too time consuming, according to Pam Harshfield’s statement in April.

This winter, Pam and Larry would wake up two or three times a night to try hazing the elk. Larry would take his tractor out, plowing through the deep snowdrifts to slowly drive the elk off. On his way back, the elk would follow him back to the shed, just out of the headlights’ range. After the slayings, Pam wrote that no one could understand how hard they’d had it, and the state was no help. “We have to care for our animals all day long in sub-zero temps, and then care for 200 of the State of Oregon’s elk herd all night long,” Pam Harshfield wrote in April.

The government, both federal and state, plays a large role in ranchers' lives and that relationship can become strained. “They have to interact with the government in a way that most citizens don’t,” says Harshfield’s attorney Lissa Casey. She was also a lawyer for Ammon Bundy, the leader at the Malheur standoff last year, after his arrest. Government agencies dictate land use, allot water, and work with private property owners to combat invasive species and conserve native species. They provide subsidies to agriculture operations, like the Harshfields, and lease public lands to private owners.

That interdependence has left some Western ranchers feeling that the government impinges on their operations, resulting in an anti-government sentiment among those who’d like to see states and counties control land management. When armed protestors occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for 40 days in 2016, they cited the mistreatment of a ranching father and son, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were convicted of poaching on public lands and then setting a fire to cover it up.

The Harshfields’ case has also evoked similar sentiments, though the elk deaths took place on private land and the state has handled prosecution. In Casey’s press release, she wrote that the government is “waging” a public information campaign against the Harshfields since they arrested him and made him post bail. In Casey’s words, the family “can’t be silent anymore.”

The arrest has elicited strong feelings among local ranchers who have also had to deal with elk competing with their cattle. Some see it as an extreme reaction to a common situation and don’t understand how they could let the meat go to waste. Others like Casey Tippett, a rancher in Enterprise, understands the Harshfields’ impulse since he says ODFW hasn’t been controlling “their elk.” “Whenever I have talked to ODFW about elk damage, I am told that they can’t do this or that, they aren’t responsible for this or that,” Tippett wrote in a letter to the editor to the Wallowa Chieftain. “I am just one of many livestock and landowners who are fighting the ODFW over their elk.”

Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattleman’s Association, says offering permits for ranchers to shoot the elk themselves is not enough, since the elk primarily come at night, and the numbers are too overwhelming for ranchers to manage alone. “We contend that if someone was coming in every night under the disguise of darkness and was stealing two tons of hay a night, they’d be arrested,” Rosa says. “But because the state is neglecting their responsibility to wildlife, our private property owners are getting their personal property damaged.”

Larry Harshfield’s court date has been moved back to June, in order for the defense and prosecution to gather more evidence. In the meantime, Pam and Larry have continued ranching in Wallowa, and ODFW gave them some wire fencing last week to prevent more wildlife damage. In an editorial by the Baker City Herald, editors pointed to the problem of elk damage as something the state should look into further. “That’s a matter worthy of investigation, regardless of what the justice system decides about Larry Harshfield’s actions,” they wrote.

Anna V. Smith is an editorial fellow at High Country News.