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Git Home!


Summer ’99 contents


Ranchers know what to do with Hart Mountain antelope but the government wants another study.

Words ©1999 Sunny Hancock. Photo by Larry Turner.

Antelope at Hart Mountain. ©Larry Turner

Why not put cows on half the refuge and see which half works out the best? Could it be because they may have to admit they were wrong in the first place? The only good more study will do now is if they can figure a way to turn coyotes into vegetarians.

Photo  ©Larry Turner

Why is it that the U.S. government can never admit to wrongdoing or making a mistake? When it comes to maintaining or recovering a species it has only one philosophy, take everything human and domestic completely away and if possible isolate the species in a pristine setting then allow them to multiply.

That has a noble ring to it but seldom works. I have noticed during my lifetime that if a species is doing well in a spot it is because they like the situation and do well under those conditions.

Back in 1932 a civic group called the Order of The Antelope decided it would start a pronghorn refuge on Hart Mountain here in southeastern Oregon. They got the O.K. from the government, and for the next 60 years cooperated with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) “both physically and monetarily” in the management thereof. The two groups got along well until about 1988. The refuge improved, the pronghorn population increased steadily and the herd remained healthy.
Then about 1989 the FWS transferred a new refuge manager to the Hart. Despite much evidence to the contrary, Barry Reiswig and many environmental groups were convinced that domestic livestock was decimating federal lands. Their philosophy was “Cattle Free by ’93” and in 1991 they got the cows booted off the refuge.

Things looked lovely for a while and the folks at FWS were so busy congratulating themselves that for the next two years they didn’t notice that fawn numbers were almost non-existent. In the meantime Reiswig was transferred on to better things (undoubtedly with the distinction of being one of the foremost authorities in the country on the American pronghorn).

Reiswig left just in time, because that’s when things started going to hell. In 1991 there were over 1,900 pronghorns seen on the refuge. Now there are less than 900. Fawn survival was so low in 1994 that the FWS took a survey and could only document eight fawns per 100 does. It takes 30 to 35 simply to stay even.

If this herd has gone in size from 2,000 in 1992 to less than 900 in 1997, where did they go? Surely these antelope haven’t all died. That means they just got up and went to where the living was better. Probably somewhere cattle are grazing.

Locals told the FWS that they would have to kill some coyotes if they were to maintain the herd. They also recommended that does (if possible) birth their fawns in amongst the cows because cattle, thinking they were protecting their calves, would keep the coyotes at bay. When the antelope fawns were big enough to handle themselves the does would take them and be on their way.

Nobody listened. Instead the government employees decided they would study the situation.

After a year’s study it was determined that, sure enough, coyotes were the culprits so the next spring just before fawning season they intended to take a helicopter up on the mountain and thin them out a bit.

When it was time for the great coyote hunt the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) heard about the little caper and immediately set their feet down. They maintained that coyotes had just as much right on the mountain as the antelope, so the feds decided to study the situation for another year. When that year was up, nothing had changed. The PETA people still weren’t going to allow any coyote hunting so there was nothing to do but have yet another study.

Two were done in 1996 and ’97 by the FWS, U.S. Geological Survey and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. They concluded that pronghorn fawns are in excellent condition at birth and not predisposed to predation; that habitat conditions are better now than at any time in the recent past; that coyotes are responsible for the vast majority of fawn deaths; and that the herd is at risk of high mortality due to old age and will continue to decline until more young animals recruit into the herd.

In May 1998, 23 conservation organizations led by the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) nominated 1.1 million acres of land between the Sheldon and Hart refuges as pronghorn area of critical environmental concern. ONDA maintained that the pronghorns need this added ecosystem as a migration path between the Hart and Sheldon refuges. Walt Devaurs, biologist for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and Mike Dunbar, biologist for FWS, both disputed this, saying that this is not a migrating herd, but they do travel back and forth occasionally due to weather conditions.

Ron Garner, a biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Burns said, “I don’t think cattle grazing is having an adverse affect on pronghorn populations. There’s no grazing on Sheldon and Hart Mountain and the antelope are not doing any better than on the BLM and private lands between the refuges.”

Exactly who are ONDA and what are their qualifications as wildlife experts? How many species are they credited with saving and where did they come by their credentials? Are their theories based on sound science or are they just another bunch of nuts on a mission?

Up until around mid-century there were many large sheep operations in this part of the world. Coyotes preyed continually on the sheep and sheepmen did all they could with the help of private and government trappers, coyote hunts and any other means at their disposal to keep predators to a minimum. They knew that you can never “kill ’em all,” but figured if they could keep their numbers down a bit then they could live with them.

From the ’60s on many things occurred that changed the predators’ situation. Government trappers were eliminated, coyote hides lost their value, mountain lions were protected, sheep were replaced by cattle, and predators were allowed to breed with no natural enemies. Result? Coyotes and cougars became so plentiful they are now moving into towns and cities and eating domestic pets (in some cases even attacking humans).

Now the FWS is seeking a $92,000 grant for a two-year coyote study. They say they don’t know enough about coyotes to manage them. If they need information about coyote management the best place to go is to some of the old ranchers who used to be in the sheep business. Coyotes go where the food is most plentiful and easy to find. When they have eaten the ready food supply, their own ranks are thinned through disease and starvation until the food supply builds up again. It’s a never-ending cycle. Is it more humane to let them kill off the antelope and deer herds, then die off themselves, than to regulate the numbers so they can all live together? In the ’80s many environmental groups joined together to rid the federal lands of domestic livestock. They were joined by some FWS employees who believed?despite much information to the contrary? that these animals were destroying wildlife habitat throughout much of the U.S.

The feds are now introducing what they call a bold new plan. It includes “continued pronghorn monitoring, expanded habitat management and a new pronghorn management plan.” What they really are trying to say is that they are going to do exactly as they have in the past and hope some miracle comes along that will keep the environmental groups off their backs and build up the pronghorn herds. This new plan is a lot like hearing Bill Clinton say, “Ah feel yuhr pane.”

If you are planting grain two inches deep and getting good crops then start planting six inches deep and wind up with nothing, do you go deeper? Not unless you work for the government. Why not put cows on half the refuge and see which half works out best? Could it be because they may have to admit they were wrong in the first place? The only good more study will do now is if they can figure a way to turn coyotes into vegetarians.

If the FWS doesn’t use a little common sense management pretty soon all they’ll have to do is change the signs on the road to read, “Hart Mountain National Coyote Refuge.” On second thought that won’t work either, because as soon as the antelope are all gone the coyotes will slip quietly off into the sunset and we’ll be stuck with just another piece of dead land.

This all reminds me of the story about the preacher who moved into a small farming community and went out in his buggy one day to get acquainted with his new congregation. He came upon an especially pretty little farm and stopped to visit with the owner. He told the farmer how fortunate he was that the Lord had blessed him with such a fine piece of property. He went on in this vein for quite a while and kept reminding the fellow how lucky he was that the Lord had seen fit to give him such a lovely farm. The man listened for a while then remarked, “Yes it is pretty nice now, but you should have seen it when the Lord had it all by himself.”

That sums it up in a nutshell. If the government doesn’t help the Lord a little and quit letting PETA, ONDA and other environmental groups tell them how to run their business, they are going to wind up with just another chunk of non-productive sagebrush. If ranchers operated the way the government does there wouldn’t be a cow left in the West. I guess we’ll watch from the sidelines for the next couple of years and see what happens.

Anyone taking any bets?

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Sunny Hancock is a retired rancher and cowboy poet from Lakeview, Ore. He knows the Hart. He knows cattle and wildlife.


Git Home! | Summer ’99 contents

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