Cows, ballot measure gunned down in Oregon

  • Dr. Patrick Shipsey at his arraignment

    B. Higley/Grant County Press

JOHN DAY, Ore. - Patrick Shipsey is a tall, thin doctor who loves rural living. A native of the small southern Oregon city of Klamath Falls, he moved to John Day six years ago because he says he was drawn to the surrounding countryside. Although his environmentalism at times made him a pariah in this ranching-logging town of 2,000 people, he has been a well-respected practitioner who runs a fitness center on the side.

But on Oct. 13, Shipsey snapped.

After trying for five years to keep a neighbor's cows off his 928 acres and away from a stream coursing through his property, he admits he shot 11 cows. A few days later, logging contractor Larry Pitts, who was clearing mistletoe-infested trees for the doctor, spotted the dead cows lying belly-up on Shipsey's property. A week after that, authorities charged Shipsey with 11 counts of criminal mischief.

Shipsey, 43, didn't just kill cattle. He may have helped kill a controversial ballot initiative that would kick cattle off hundreds of the state's polluted streams, a measure for which he was one of the leading sponsors. After leading by 20 points in mid-September polls, the "clean streams" measure crashed at the ballot box by a 64-36 percent margin.

The shooting was hardly the only reason. Gov. John Kitzhaber, a popular liberal Democrat who often wears cowboy boots at public functions, opposed the measure. So did virtually every other Oregon politician and most major newspapers. Opponents also outspent environmentalist backers by more than 5-1.

But until the shooting occurred, the grazing proposal had been just one of 23 ballot questions overwhelming a confused electorate.

"The shooting got the attention of people who would otherwise not pay attention," said Bill Lunch, an Oregon State University political science professor. "It reinforced the claim by opponents, made fairly or unfairly, that the proponents were extremists."

Back home, some of Shipsey's ranching adversaries were thrilled: They thought this might drive Shipsey out of town, said Pitts, a veteran logging contractor who was removing 400,000 board-feet of second-growth forest for the doctor. Even before the cow executions, a group of 60 ranchers had picketed his property, carrying signs that mocked his logging by calling him a "preservationist turned extractionist."

After Shipsey's arrest, several letter writers to the local weekly Blue Mountain Eagle urged readers to shun his practice and run him out of town. "Bring on the tar and feathers and I will definitely supply the rail," wrote Adrienne Statum, who lives in the neighboring town of Mount Vernon.

But John Day's mayor, Chris Labhart, was more sympathetic. Although the mayor doesn't agree with Shipsey on environmental issues, he called Shipsey an excellent doctor "and a real caring individual, not just about the environment, but about people in general."

Ecologist Denzel Ferguson, who lives 35 miles north of John Day, said Shipsey was one of the brightest people he had ever met, and that he couldn't fathom why the doctor would start shooting, particularly during an election campaign.

"He must have just gone berserk when he kept seeing those cows over on his land, and thought, 'nobody is going to help me, so I might as well do it myself,' " said Ferguson, author of Sacred Cows at the Public Trough, published in 1993.

The conflict that led to the shooting stemmed from Grant County's century-old open range law. Under the law, a property owner must build fences if he wants to keep out another landowner's cattle. Shipsey had built five miles of fencing not long after he bought his land in 1991, but elk from a herd on either side would regularly knock over the fences. That allowed neighbor Bobby Sproul's cows to break through and start chewing at grasses and trees along Shipsey's creek.

"The first several times this happened, Mr. Sproul was gracious enough to go up and send one of his buckaroos (to get the cows) off my property," Shipsey recalled. "Then he told me, 'Look I'm too busy to do this. You can hire a cowboy for $60 to $100 a day.' "

Sproul, now 82, recalled only that he had given Shipsey the name of a cowboy who could help him fix the fences back then, and hadn't talked to him more than a half-dozen times since 1991.

Now, Shipsey faces the prospect of $1.1 million in fines, 55 years in jail and losing his physician's license if he is convicted. But he told reporters he has no intention of moving or changing his political views.

"I am what I am and I do what I believe in," he said. "I'm not going to turn into a redneck just to get along."

He also said the anti-grazing initiative trounced by voters was a "horrible measure" and impossible to enforce. His rejection of the ballot measure he'd backed may have stemmed from his fellow environmentalists' rejection: After his arrest, Shipsey was removed from the initiative's steering committee.

Tony Davis reports from Portland, Oregon.

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