Anti-cattle crusader shatters peace on East Oregon prairie

By: Staff  Date: 01/15/2012 Category: | Farm and Ranch Almanac |

Robert Sproul, 83, never had anything quite like this happen to him before, not in 70 years of ranching the Grant County land around Mt. Vernon. His neighbor, on some sort of cockamamie crusade, had shot nearly a dozen of his cattle in the last few years and seems downright proud of the fact.

Sproul and his wife of 64 years met Patrick Shipsey and his family several years ago when the baker City physician bought the place next to his. Shipsey's dog got lost, it seems, and his wife came to the Sproul place to ask them to keep an eye out for the pet.

That first meeting was brief and friendly. Mrs. Sproul suggested Mrs. Shipsey lay her coat down outside the Sproul home and see if the dog would come back to it. Sure enough, it did.

Meanwhile, the Sprouls kept ranching the way they had for decades. Their land is considered open range, meaning cattle and other livestock are fenced out of places, not in.

Open range laws are common in the West, and their roots stretch back into the region's earliest settlement by farmers and ranchers from further east. Fencing was expensive in those early days more than 100 years ago, and many homesteaders simply could not afford to build and maintain the kind of fences needed to contain their animals in any meaningful way. Fencing is still expensive, time-consuming t build, and difficult to maintain, and in much of eastern Oregon, it is not required by law on private, state, or even federal land.

Shipsey's first complaint about the cattle came not long after he moved in next to the Sprouls, and Robert Sproul took it in stride. He did so a second time, and a third. Still Sproul had never directly met the man his cattle were causing such problems.

That changed, finally, when Sproul went to Shipsey's John Day office to try to settle the two men's differences. Sproul said he told the doctor his man would check the place and move offending cattle quickly, but that Shipsey would not even acknowledge this effort.

The in June of 1995, Shipsey called Sproul. He wanted to log a piece of his land and wanted to use Sproul's road to reach it. Fine, Sproul said. In return, would Shipsey please leave his gates open after Thanksgiving so Sproul's cattle could make their way to lower ground and feed. Sproul explained that unless the gates were open, cattle moving down would become trapped by the drift fences and starve.

Shipsey agreed but still managed to shoot three of Sproul's cattle. While the animals' deaths were discovered the next spring, Sproul did not learn Shipsey was responsible until much later.

Then in 1996, Shipsey again logged his land, this time hauling the downed timber around Sproul's place. He was busy shooting Sproul's cattle as well, killing eight more animals. Finally someone on the logging crew turned him in. He was convicted of felonies in the killings last week.

What's so unusual about all this had been Shipsey's response to Sproul and his animals. Sproul maintains he has done his level best to contain his cattle, though Shipsey refuses to acknowledge that fact. Sproul, in fact, has been raising cattle on the same land for 70 years - he got his first calf when he was 13 - and has managed to get on pretty well with his neighbors all that time.

Unlike Shipsey, they apparently are more aware of Sproul's problems and willing to work with him to solve them. I suspect that for years, when Sproul's cattle strayed to a neighbor's place or vice versa, the offending animals were simply fetched home with little thought to the matter.

Cattle, big, heavy animals that they are, can punch through any weak spot in a fence with ease; if frightened by something, they'll go right over the top. Neighbors in rural Oregon know that.

As for Shipsey, I cannot put into polite language the punishment I believe would be just for the man. Whatever his complaints about the range law, whatever his beef with his neighbor, what he did was without conscience and should be treated as such.

This man bills himself as a healer, but his actions say otherwise. He apparently never sought a peaceful solution to his dispute with Robert Sproul. Instead he wantonly murdered his neighbor's stock, without regard for the other man's livelihood or to the animals themselves.

Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin of Bend, Oregon, and a vice president of Western Communications Inc., owner of The Observer. Her editorial is reprinted with permission

About The Author

Staff's photo
Staff -

All Authors Of This Article: | Janet Stevens |
Like this article?
Don’t forget to share, like or follow us