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Know the West

The political power of the cowboy

Oregon struggles with the reintroduction of wolves into lands where they have long been hated and hunted.


Earlier this month, President Donald Trump issued pardons for two Oregon ranchers who were serving time for arson on public lands. The plight of the ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven, underpinned the demonstrations in Burns, Oregon, that ultimately sparked the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. That occupation was, of course, related to the 2014 standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada, between supporters of rancher (and melon farmer) Cliven Bundy and federal agents. Readers will recall from HCN’s coverage that few substantial convictions resulted from the Nevada standoff or the Oregon occupation. These facts demonstrate the political power of one of the West’s most romanticized icons: the cowboy.

That power influences conservation policies across the region, especially where ranchers’ livelihoods are concerned. No issue had proven itself more stubborn than the reintroduction of wolves into lands where they have long been hated, hunted and extirpated. The reintroduction of gray wolves into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem was hard-won by conservationists and deeply opposed by ranchers — until the idea of predation compensation was finally accepted. The idea was to pay ranchers for livestock lost to wolves. But as writer Gloria Dickie reports in this issue’s cover story, a compensation program in Oregon may be breaking down, potentially undermining the idea. Only the most dedicated idealist would think that wolves will come out better off than ranchers in whatever follows.

Our society has deep sympathy for and allegiance to the cowboy. (Picture Ronald Reagan in a cowboy hat, presenting himself as an indelible expression of American can-do-ism.) But we haven’t learned to extend such sympathies to other groups. Also in this issue you’ll find reporting from writer Jacqueline Keeler, who describes the lack of sympathy in our system for Native women who go missing or are murdered. Given a broken, antagonistic system, neither federal nor tribal authorities seem equipped to deal with a major issue in Indian Country. Keeler describes the ordeal of trying to find a woman named Olivia Lone Bear, who went missing in the fall of 2017 from the Fort Berthold Reservation, in North Dakota. Lone Bear became one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Indigenous women who have disappeared and remain unaccounted for.

Brian Calvert, editor-in-chief
Brooke Warren/High Country News

The lack of effort to find such women underscores a dark reality in American politics: the power of the winners over “losers.” Suffice it to say that Trump has never touched down in Indian Country. The White House statement announcing the pardon of the Oregon ranchers tells us what we need to know about our current values: “The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community, and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement, and farmers and ranchers across the West.” Without those things, in other words, good luck out there.