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for people who care about the West

Billboard battles don't help much

 

About a year ago, in northeast Oregon, someone shot one of the wolves that ran with the Wenaha Pack. A few months later, the poacher had not yet been caught, and the case was getting cold. To revive interest, conservation groups raised $10,000 for a reward and rented space on a billboard just outside of the ranching and farming town of La Grande, Ore., pop. 12,700. The billboard asked in bold letters: "Who killed the Wenaha wolf?" And it added, "Whatever you think of wolves, poaching is wrong."

In less than two days, the landowner, who had leased the billboard space to an advertising firm, demanded that the firm take the sign down. Then, in March, a new billboard went up. This one depicted four cows peacefully grazing in the background, but in the foreground, the huge head of a snarling wolf was pasted in. The headline read: "Wolves are protected, why not cows, people and private property rights?"

Whatever side you're on in these wolf wars, the absurdity of that question is offensive. Cows not protected? That will be big news for many people, especially those environmentalists who charge that cows get too much favoritism on public land, including being grandfathered in to graze in designated wilderness. It will also be news to private landowners in open-range states who must fence out cows to keep them from intruding onto their land.

Consider the case of Dr. Patrick Shipsey. In 1996, after unsuccessful attempts to keep out persistent cows that liked a stream on his land, his patience snapped, and he shot 11 cows. He said afterward that he was tired of trying to keep the cows from trespassing on his land along a riparian area he was trying to restore. He was convicted of criminal mischief and "unauthorized use of livestock."

Not only were the cows protected, but Oregon's open-range law meant that Shipsey didn't even have a right to demand that his neighbor keep the cows off his private property. Of course, I do not agree with Shipsey killing cows. But his story illustrates the extremes of our disputes about restoring wolves, the so-called sanctity of private land and grazing cattle that seem to have a lot of power. Our conversation is often all about outrage and little about reality.

Misleading rhetoric in these emotionally charged debates only serves to rally extremists on both sides while alienating and confusing the more thoughtful -- and numerous -- middle ground where the solutions reside. The placement on a billboard of a huge and snarling wolf head next to text falsely implying that property rights are being taken away is guaranteed to heat the blood of many Westerners. It does nothing to resolve differences between wolf advocates and opponents.

So who won this billboard battle? It is impossible to say with precision. The Oregon Legislature recently passed one useful bill, establishing a mechanism that compensates people for livestock killed by wolves. This was breakthrough legislation resulting from ranchers, wildlife advocates and the governor working together calmly and rationally. No billboards were involved.

But that wasn't the only wolf legislation passed. Rep. Mike Schaufler, D, capitalized on the heated political discourse: "If your cattle, your pets, your family, your property is threatened, you should be able to shoot any varmint that's making that threat even if it's the last one on earth." Legislation was then passed that allows anyone in Oregon to kill a wolf in self-defense or while defending a family member. The vote was unanimous, for who could ever vote against self-defense?

Well, actually, every legislator could have, because the new law is an unnecessary duplication of already existing laws. It's irrational to boot. It is already legal under both state and federal law to defend yourself, even if it means killing an endangered species. This legislation merely provided cover for lobbyists needing to claim a victory for an extreme position, while further cluttering our legal system with an unnecessary and misleading law.

In the end, I sympathize with the ranchers. Small ranchers and farmers are indeed under a lot of pressure and facing many threats to their existence. Yet the threats they face have much more to do with corporate monopolies and government policies than with wolves or other predators.

I want small ranchers and farmers to flourish here, just as they once did, to preserve and protect the rural Oregon that I love. I also want wild areas and wildlife to flourish here, as they once did. Both have coexisted in the past, and they can again. What's required is thoughtful discussion to find ways to bridge differences instead of artificially creating even more of them. Debate by billboard doesn't resemble discussion; it just makes our tempers rise. It's time to call cow chips on irrational rhetoric coming from either side: the extreme greens or the extreme ranchers.

Mitch Wolgamott is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a biologist, born and raised in Oregon, who writes from rural Union County.