From the November 2002 Idaho Observer:

Day 2,920: “Agency from hell” loses battle against Oregon wildlife rancher

Circuit judge halts eight year persecution; state to appeal decision

by Don Harkins

MADRAS, Oregon -- Jefferson County Circuit Judge Gary Thompson dismissed 50 of 51 counts against wildlife rancher Clark Couch of Ashwood, Ore., October 17, 2002. The charges were a series of misdemeanors related to Couch's possession of exotic cervids (deer, elk) that he kept at his 2,200-acre Clover Creek Ranch for private hunting.

This story is of particular importance to me because my coverage of it marks the beginning of my career as an opposition journalist.

In fall, 1994, I wrote features and sports for the East Oregonian (EO) of Pendleton, Oregon. I had an inside track to the Clark Couch story because I knew a few of the insiders and wrote three stories about it for the EO.

The first story described how the state was attempting to stop Couch from purchasing out-of-area animals and bringing them to his ranch for the purpose of selling hunts to private individuals.

The story was balanced. It included Couch's viewpoint that he had been purchasing animals, harvesting their products and selling hunts since 1957; that he had all the state propagation licenses, bills of sale for the animals and they were all current with their shots; that his fence was good and his animals were not able to get out and spread disease to native herds nor confuse the gene pool with unauthorized mating with native species.

The state contended that the animals were “wildlife” and that, while Couch could buy them, raise them, feed, water and otherwise take care of them, wildlife, whether native to Oregon or not, belonged to the public and, therefore, came under the regulatory purview of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW, later nicknamed “the agency from hell”).

That story was printed almost as I wrote it without too many changes by my editor.

The second story described “Day 61” and was altered somewhat as I had decidedly lost my journalistic objectivity.

The ODFW told Couch that he was to cease and desist his activities within 60 days or the Oregon National Guard would be called in to raid his rugged ranch by helicopter and slaughter his animals.

Rather than acquiesce to the state's militant plan, Couch and area ranchers organized the Day 61 Chili Feed and invited hundreds of people, including the national media, to witness the state of Oregon's wildlife protection policies in action.

To avoid international embarrassment, the National Guard never did come out to slaughter the animals it claimed to be protecting. Instead, the ODFW initiated what has become an eight-year campaign to spend several hundred thousand taxpayer dollars to unsuccessfully shut Couch down in state and federal courts.

The third story published in the EO was not the same story I had written though my name was attached to the byline. In the story I wrote an inter office memo from Governor John Kitzhaber's office was quoted. The memo said, and I am quoting from memory, “It is imperative that we shut down operations such as Clark Couch's because they will negatively impact our deer and elk tag revenues.”

The quote was not included in the published version of that story. My editors knew I found pay dirt -- that the state was attempting to put Couch out of business because he was a competitor. Since when is the government supposed to compete with the private sector in commercial enterprises?

Curiously, the state owns and operates an operation very similar to Couch's at the Stucky game ranch near LaGrande.

Within a few months I was in Oregon federal court watching the state attempt to prove its case against Couch as the editor of The Oregon Observer. The state claimed that Couch's animals might breed with native populations and spread disease. The arguments were absurd because there was no indication those things were occurring and feral pigs and range cattle were already all over the state and the ODFW was not concerned.

But the state kept coming after Couch and he kept fighting back. Instead of putting him out of business, his business grew. Instead of isolating him, the handsome, charismatic and principled central Oregonian began to accumulate allies like the Safari Club, the Oregon Cattleman's Association and several state senators and representatives.

As the ODFW increased its pressure on Couch out of frustration, the agency opened itself up to legislative scrutiny that has caused at least one director to be fired. The agency has also lost some of the unchecked authority it once enjoyed prior to its persecution of Couch.

Judge Thompson reasoned in his decision to dismiss 50 of the 51 charges against Couch that, “... wildlife is indigenous species that are running free or swimming free on the lands or the waters of the state. In contrast, game animals being raised on a game farm within a confined setting and under the ownership of a property landowner, which are not indigenous and that are not running free on public and private lands in this state, are not wildlife per se.”

Count 51 deals with an elk that Couch purchased several years ago that, from the information provided, may have been an indigenous species. However, the animal has been dead for a long time.

Rather than admit that privately owned game animals are not logically or legally wildlife that belong to the state, the state intends to appeal the judge's decision. The next hearing on the matter is scheduled for November 18, 2002.

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