Eastern Oregon rancher cries wolf

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

 

Cove's Sharon Beck digs in against predators of all stripes.

By Oakley Brooks

After Sharon Beck spends the better part of a winter morning explaining how wolves’ imminent arrival in Oregon is part of a grand effort by environmentalists to end her rural way of life, she drives to a big shed in the middle of her Union County ranch to see her son, Rob. He’s hustling to fill an idling truck with sunflower seeds, headed to Brazil.

Beck grabs a handful of seeds from a nearby pile and starts cracking the husks with her fingers. Rob pauses long enough to hear that his mom has been holding court with a visitor for several hours already. He turns and says, “I am sorry.” Then he howls, “Did she talk about the wolves?” and scoots away.

Beck allows a brief grin, bites into another seed and flicks away the husk. The ribbing from the middle of her three children barely grazes her.

In the wide-open country of Eastern Oregon, there are hardened ranchers — and then there’s Sharon Beck.

Beck and her husband, Bob, live on their ranch on the outskirts of Cove, 10 miles east of La Grande, near a ghost village called Alicel that her maternal grandfather moved to in 1892. Everything they have — a successful cow and calf operation, timber holdings, a cozy brick house — seems hard won. Her forebears prepared for Indian raids by building a trap door in their house. Today, she and Bob fend off cheap commodities prices and a thickening array of regulations and environmental groups.

Beck is now waging a vehement fight on behalf of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association (OCA) against the arrival of reintroduced wolves from Idaho, which will be allowed to migrate into Eastern Oregon under a December plan approved by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. For Beck, wolves have taken on far more significance than the threat they pose to the live assets of Oregon’s $590 million cattle industry.

“This is about defending freedom,” says Beck. “I don’t know that any of our relatives fought in any wars, but we’ve done our part to defend our freedom through raising food and keeping the agricultural economy viable. Opposing wolves is my strong contribution to this fight. I’ll believe that as long as I have breath in me.”

Delivering these words, Beck’s eyebrows slant precipitously down toward her nose and her ruddy, wide face becomes an intimidating flank. Add a 10-gallon hat to her head and she’s sheer defiance.

The 68-year-old Beck is a force for rural interests in Salem and Washington. “She’s a tenacious battler,” says Bill Moore, the president-elect of OCA. But she’s at times so obstinate that she drives away even her farm allies and some say she may even do a disservice to rural interests.

During the past legislative session in Salem, she and OCA lobbied against a bill that would have granted limited compensation for livestock killed by wolves because the bill forced livestock owners to recover their carcasses in order to be paid and restricted their ability to kill problem wolves. The bill failed, over the objection of the Oregon Farm Bureau, and it leaves ranchers without any compensation program.

“When I’ve talked with Sharon one on one, I was surprised to find we weren’t that far apart on some things,” says Brett Brownscombe, formerly with the Hells Canyon Preservation Council in La Grande and a member, with Beck, of the now disbanded wolf advisory committee to the Fish and Wildlife Commission. “But the rhetoric she uses in public polarizes people. Everything is so black and white with her. In the long term, that doesn’t really address the urban-rural divide.”

Bouncing along a dirt track in Beck’s truck, 500 feet up the mountain above her house, one can see where she gets her passion. It’s a crisp day and the view stretches west across 60 miles of crystal sky to the Blue Mountains. In the golden valley below, the silver Grande Ronde River twirls north toward the Snake. In a stand of fir farther up the mountain, she stops the vehicle. This is potential wolf country.

In the summer, she and Bob put the cattle out to feed on these alpine grasses. With their herd spread throughout the forest, the Becks don’t give themselves much of a chance of stopping the predator. (There are no wolves yet; three wolves entered Oregon in recent years before being killed or captured.)

To brace for wolves’ inevitable arrival — and to protest it — Beck has urged ranchers to close their lands to hunting this winter. Ranchers say that will increase elk and deer populations to provide more food for wolves besides livestock. But the move also raises the stakes in the wolf debate by asking Oregon’s hunting community to choose sides. If hunters are angry about it, Beck says, “They’ll have to direct their displeasure to the fish and wildlife agency.”

Later in the day, after working her way back to her house, Beck strides across her lawn to a small outbuilding to point out a sign hanging there: It reads “Atisha.” It’s a souvenir from the late 1980s when the Becks rented pasture on Big Muddy Ranch near Antelope.

The ranch had been recently abandoned by the religious colony of Indian guru Rajneesh after he fled from immigration officials. Many of Rajneesh’s followers were still in the area and the Becks got to know them, warmed to their hybrid East-West philosophy, and even helped followers throw one final celebration of the Raj.

What were the Becks doing hanging out with a bunch of neo-hippies who’d been swept up by this cult of the Raj? A strange kinship had formed. These were people who, like the Becks, wanted to carve out a piece of the Oregon outback and do their own thing. “If people had just left them alone to build what they wanted,’’ Beck says, “there wouldn’t have been so much trouble.”

They only wanted their freedom. And Sharon Beck would recognize brothers-inarms in that struggle anywhere.

 

 

 

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