We don’t know exactly what happened this winter on Larry and Pamela Harshfield’s cattle ranch near Wallowa.

We do know that 12 elk were killed on their ranch, along with 13 other elk on an adjacent property. And we know that the meat from these animals — potentially several thousand pounds of nutritious food for local residents in need — was wasted.

Earlier this month Oregon State Police arrested Larry Harshfield and charged him with 24 misdemeanor counts — 12 counts for unlawfully killing the dozen elk on his property, and 12 counts for wasting their meat.

Earlier this week his attorney released a written statement from Pamela Harshfield.

She didn’t explicitly deny that her husband had killed the 12 elk. As for the meat, Pamela Harshfield argues that it wasn’t wasted because wildlife fed on the elk carcasses. But Oregon law requires that game animals be salvaged for human consumption, not to feed bald eagles and coyotes.

We certainly don’t condone poaching elk or wasting their meat. And if Larry Harshfield is convicted of doing so, he will deserve the punishment meted out.

However, the situation in Wallowa should spur a discussion among Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) officials about whether the agency’s current strategies for dealing with elk and other wildlife that damage private property are working as well as they might.

This is no minor problem. Nor is it a problem confined only to historically harsh winters such as this past season.

Elk and other game animals are a public resource that belong, legally, to all of us. When those animals cause economic hardships for ranchers and farmers, we have an obligation, through ODFW, to try to mitigate those effects. The agency tried to help the Harshfields. Pamela Harshfield claims that aid was insufficient. That’s a matter worthy of investigation, regardless of what the justice system decides about Larry Harshfield’s actions.

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