A story about hunters, private property rights, and one bull elk

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald October 23, 2009 11:05 am

I suspect that most every elk hunter who habitually pursues the wily animals (and it is a habit, much like smoking, and for some equally addictive) can tell you about the one shot they yearn to have a second chance at.

The arrow that nicked an unseen limb.

The bullet nudged off course by a sudden gust.

I’m referring, obviously, to shots that missed the target.

But there are other cases, albeit of extreme rarity, when the hunter’s aim was true but he wishes, given time to reflect, that he had not pulled the bowstring or the trigger.

I received a letter last week about one such situation.

As with most elk tales, this one involves a bull.

But it’s also a story about private property rights, and hunting ethics, and how episodes that involve good people, acting as their conscience dictates, can end badly for all concerned.

Sean Cleaver and John Ward traveled to Baker County from their homes in Northern California to hunt elk during the archery season in September.

For five days the pair hunted high in the Wallowas.

No elk.

After several days more of fruitless searching at lower elevations, the archers decided to scout the 150-acre property where they were staying.

Dennis and Kathy Farster own the land, which is along Eagle Creek several miles north of Richland.

The Farsters, who bought the property in 1972, also have a home in Northern California; but they visit their Eagle Creek home and property several times each year. They like to hunt elk and chukar. Cleaver is their son-in-law, and Ward is the brother of the Farsters’ other son-in-law.

To the hunters’ surprise, the Farsters’ property harbored three bull elk.

It took two days of stalking, but Ward and Cleaver crept to within arrow range of a six-point bull.

They hit the bull three times.

But bull elk are not easily killed by arrows — even arrows tipped with razor-sharp blades.

As is typical, the wounded bull ran.

It left a prominent trail of blood, however, a trail Cleaver and Ward had no trouble following.

They were chagrined, though, to watch the bull leap the fence that marks the boundary of a 690-acre parcel owned by Peter Martin and Karen Riener.

Ward and Cleaver hiked to their pickup truck and drove down the road. They looked for evidence that the elk had continued past Martin’s property.

There was none.

The hunters then went to Martin’s trailer and asked him if they could come onto his property. They wanted to finish off the animal in case it was still alive, and to tag the animal and salvage the meat.

Martin refused.

Which he is entitled to do.

He owns the property.

Ward and Cleaver telephoned the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office in Baker City.

An employee there referred the pair to the Oregon State Police.

They explained their predicament to Lt. Randy Scorby, who works in the OSP’s Wildlife Division in Baker City.

Scorby told me last week what he told Ward and Cleaver in September: That neither he, nor they, could force Martin to let the hunters enter his property to retrieve the bull.

Scorby said he told the hunters that he would meet with Martin and try to “mediate” the matter.

“It’s very rare that a landowner absolutely refuses to allow a hunter to salvage a wounded animal,” Scorby told me. “But he has every right to do that. He does not have to allow us or the Fish and Wildlife Department or anyone onto his property.”

Scorby said Ward and Cleaver did not ask him to talk with Martin.

The hunters, not surprisingly, were distraught about their experience.

The Farster, Ward and Cleaver families e-mailed a letter to the Baker City Herald, writing, in part: “We think that because of Mr. Martin, a wonderful animal was needlessly wasted and THAT is morally and ethically wrong! Needless to say, our family is just sick about the whole affair.”

Kathy Farster told me in a telephone interview last week that Cleaver, her son-in-law, was disillusioned about how the episode — his first trip hunting elk with a bow — ended.

“It was just a total, disastrous waste,” Farster said.

I understand why she and her family are disgusted.

Ward and Cleaver acted properly, as true sportsmen.

They hunted where they were supposed to hunt. They had tags that allowed them to kill the bull.

After wounding the elk they followed it. After watching the bull cross Martin’s fence, they asked for his permission to track it, rather than trespass, as slob hunters would have done.

“They did everything right,” Scorby said.

Martin, meanwhile, did nothing wrong, legally.

And although I disagree with his decision to deny the hunters access, I respect Martin’s right to make that choice.

Ownership of private property, after all, is among the fundamental principles of American society.

It wasn’t Martin’s fault that the wounded bull ran onto his property.

Yet it seems to me unsatisfying, and a bit irresponsible, to justify Martin’s choice by rhapsodizing about high-minded notions of inviolable Constitutional rights while ignoring certain other significant facts.

The reality is that Ward and Cleaver lawfully killed a fine bull elk but, through no fault of their own, they were unable to use any part of the animal.

That’s a pity.

“A worst-case scenario,” in Kathy Farsters’ words.

I agree.

Steve Eaton, who lives along Eagle Creek, built the Farsters’ home. He knows, and respects, both the Farsters and Martin.

Eaton described the September incident to me as “a clash of basic philosophy.”

I think he’s right.

Martin’s philosophy, it seems to me, is that it was better to let the bull rot, and nourish scavengers, than to let Ward and Cleaver slice the animal into steaks and jerky.

I disagree.

I don’t mean that Martin was wrong — there is no true or false in this matter, only opinions.

Or, as Eaton put it, philosophies.

But I feel certain that Martin’s philosophy represents a minuscule minority of the population.

Even among people who oppose hunting I doubt there are more than a relative handful who, if asked to decide whether to allow Ward and Cleaver to salvage the elk, would have sent them away.

Martin’s phone number in Richland has been disconnected, and I haven’t been able to find an alternate number. Kathy Farster said Martin apparently travels to New Zealand occasionally.

In any case, the handwritten letter Martin sent to the Farsters, dated Oct. 4 and addressed to “Mr. Farster,” explains why he turned the hunters away.

Martin describes, for instance, how he first saw a bull elk and its herd of 20 near Eagle Creek in September 2008, one day after his friend died.

“What a timely, even symbolic, consolation!” Martin wrote. “It was comforting, in the following weeks, to know the presence of this life with which we shared the land.

“That comfort is no more, thanks to you.”

Martin explained that although the elk ate much fruit from his orchard, and damaged other fruit and conifer trees he and his wife planted, “it is all worth it to us, to see them reside here.”

Martin also wrote about his feelings regarding hunting: “When visiting hunters come and take the best or most unique of life that crosses their paths, they succeed in maximizing their impact in the pursuit of personal gratification, but they unwittingly degrade the genetic quality and variety of life.”

He concluded the letter by criticizing Farster (from the context of the letter, Martin apparently mistook either Ward or Cleaver for Dennis Farster, although Farster did not accompany the hunters and was not in Baker County at the time):

“I do not regard you as a neighbor at all. The elk were our neighbors. I regard you as an absentee owner of land adjacent to ours, who comes annually to his vacation cabin to take from nature whatever he can get. Therefore, especially now, I see you more as a seasonal raider, whose arrival is unwelcome, and whose departure is a relief, except for the wake of loss.”

That Martin occasionally approaches eloquence in his writing does not, it seems to me, soften even slightly his blatant hostility toward the Farsters.

I think it’s reasonable for a person to oppose, or even to despise, hunting.

But I’m offended by anybody who implies, as it seems to me Martin does in his letter, that hunters seek only to inflate their egos by stealing from the gentle and harmonious natural world.

Sure some hunters are louts.

They’re the sort who, unlike Ward and Cleaver, would have sauntered onto Martin’s property, claimed the bull as though they were entitled to do so, and told Martin to go to hell if he tried to interfere.

But I can’t envision most of the hunters I know acting so callously.

Most of the hunters I know mainly like to get out in the air and procure some lean meat without relying on somebody else to bloody their hands making the kill.

This sort of hunter, which I think comprises the majority, respects the elk as much as Martin does.

To borrow his word, hunters are indeed “takers” — but in precisely the way that the elk which pilfered Martin’s orchard are. 

I confess that I simply don’t understand what makes the elk so different from the man, or why it’s a beautiful scene to behold when an elk plucks pears from a tree but a heinous crime when a man shoots an elk.

Maybe the answer is that elk can’t figure out the drive-through at McDonald’s.

Anyway it seems to me inconsistent that Martin, despite his disdain for hunters, declined even to allow Ward and Cleaver to make sure the bull was dead.

I expected that someone who cares deeply about elk, as Martin obviously does, would not let the bull suffer when he was capable of preventing such an ordeal.

Ultimately, it saddens me that although the letter of no law was broken during this episode, the spirit of a very important law was, it seems to me, eviscerated.

That’s the law that prohibits hunters from wasting the meat from a game animal.

No one will be cited.

Ward and Cleaver acted lawfully in shooting the elk; and as Scorby pointed out, it was Martin’s invoking of his property rights, not the hunters’ negligence, that led to the elk being wasted.

Yet Martin won’t be punished either.

Which also seems fair to me.

He didn’t shoot the elk.

What I’m left with, then, is a group of people, all of whom celebrate the elk, but for vastly different, but equally compelling, reasons.

All of these people are angry about what happened last month along Eagle Creek.

None of them won.

None of them lost.

And of the bull, little is probably left now but a hide and bones.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.