- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2003

HART MOUNTAIN NATIONAL ANTELOPE REFUGE, Ore. - The only car for miles rumbles in the distance and 50 pairs of black-tipped ears flick forward in nervous anticipation. The vehicle draws closer, and now the pronghorn antelope are on the run, surging across the flat plain with necks outstretched and mouths gaping.

Sightings of pronghorn have become commonplace at the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, 10 years after the population dipped significantly. A helicopter survey in late July counted more than 2,400 animals, the most ever recorded since the refuge was founded in 1936.

But success hasn’t come without consequences.

The refuge banned cattle grazing in 1994 after a bitter dispute with local ranchers. It remains one of the largest cattle-free tracts of public land in the West.

With antelope numbers at an all-time high, the refuge once more finds itself at the center of a high-stakes debate, between environmentalists who want to kick cattle off all federal land and ranchers desperate to stop them.

Refuge managers, caught in the middle, say there are no easy answers.

“We can show the difference between what we started with and what we have in the end. But to say for sure whether the most important factor was the removal of cattle — you just can’t prove that,” said Mike Nunn, project leader for the Sheldon-Hart Mountain Refuge Complex.

Located near the Oregon-Nevada border, the remote refuge sprawls across a tabletop of rock 8,000 feet above sea level that juts from a flat, sweeping expanse of hay fields and cattle meadows.

In 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt created the refuge as a “last stronghold” for the pronghorn, a creature the size of a small deer with a running speed of up to 60 mph.

Ranchers grazed sheep and cattle there starting in the mid-1800s, and over 150 years the ecosystem changed from high grasses to ankle-high sagebrush.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, decided in 1994 that grazing didn’t fit with the refuge’s mission and banned it despite angry protests from families who had grazed thousands of cattle on the land for generations. The refuge’s cattle-free status still rankles in remote Lake County, population 7,000, where ranching is the major industry.

“The Fish and Wildlife decided they wanted to get out of the cattle business and they did,” said John O’Keeffe, a rancher who once grazed 700 head on the refuge. “There wasn’t any justification for eliminating the cattle.”

But Mr. Nunn says the ban on grazing was the main reason for the antelope’s revival. Without cattle, Mr. Nunn and his staff say they have been able to burn 22,000 acres of sagebrush. The burning has caused an environmental rebirth on the land, refuge managers say.

But ranchers say eliminating cattle has nothing to do with the recent pronghorn upswing. They point to a seven-year drought that ended in 1994.

“If you point to 1998 numbers as opposed to 1988 numbers, you’re looking at 10 inches of rain instead of 2,” said Mr. O’Keeffe, Oregon director of the Public Lands Council and vice chairman for federal lands with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

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