The near death of Hells Canyon Mule Days this year begs the question of whether the event is worth the time, effort, or expense involved in putting it on or whether at this point it is simply an exercise in futility.
The show is going forward this year thanks to the Enterprise Merchants Association, which resuscitated the event after some longtime members of the Mule Days committee decided they needed a break. We wonder if the merchants have merely postponed the inevitable one more year.
The merchants were not exactly chomping at the bit to take the reins of the 21-year-old mule show but at the same time they were unwilling to let it go away. Mule Days has a long, proud history in Wallowa County ... and Enterprise businesses cannot afford to lose reasons for people to come to town. So after a protracted and acrimonious discussion with some mule people who had their own peculiar ideas about how the show ought to be run the merchants stepped up to the plate, even though some of them readily admit that they "don't know which end of a mule to feed."
That's OK. Mule owners know how to take care of their animals. What Mule Days needs is an infusion of new blood and new enthusiasm to take care of all the other details that go into organizing an event - tickets, advertising, concessions, timers, announcers, statisticians and on and on ... at least for one more year.
Still, the nagging question remains: Is a mule show in Northeast Oregon viable in this day and age?
Certainly mules are less relevant in Wallowa County today than they were 21 years ago when Mule Days was conceived by Bob Casey, Max Walker, Manford Isley, Ken Wick, Jerry Winegar, Deb Wart, and Steve Cavallaro.
State and federal land management policies have destroyed guide and outfitting businesses by sending demand for pack trips into the tank. These policies include those which have fostered an explosion in the number of predators in Hells Canyon and the Wallowa Mountains. Burgeoning predator populations have in turn decimated deer and elk herds in those areas.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) has responded by drastically reducing hunting tags. This year, for example, ODFW issued 260 cow elk tags in Wallowa County, down from 4,140 tags in 1995. From the packer's perspective that is a reduction of nearly 4,000 potential customers, and those figures do not include simultaneous reductions in the number of bull elk and deer tags. There are many other examples of the same kind of anti-packer policies, including a wholesale ban on livestock grazing in Hells Canyon, tended by people on horses and mules.
So the deck is stacked against packers and their mules and, by extension, Hells Canyon Mule Days. The professional packer is, as they say, an endangered species.
If Mule Days is a tradition worth continuing, it will be out of a sense of nostalgia and romanticism rather than as an authentic rendezvous of real, working mountain men and their mules. That is doable but only if organizers are willing to incorporate more show biz designed for consumption by an increasingly urban audience and less of the home spun country atmosphere that Mule Days has tried to maintain all these years. R.S.