In the community, Outdoors

Backcountry deputy patrols remote Malheur County

On a dust-paved backroad between Willowcreek and Brogan, the truck stops. Brian Belnap, Malheur County sheriff’s deputy, shuts off the engine. For a moment he watches quietly as a covey of chukars flutter through the dry grass on the side of the road.

All is quiet.

Four days a week, Belnap patrols the rural backcountry of Malheur County, his job funded by the federal Bureau of Land Management. His route takes him all over the county, much of the land managed by the BLM. He drives for hours and often helps ranchers, farmers, or hunters in the remote or unincorporated areas of the county. 

Some days, Belnap’s only companions are the wildlife and cattle that roam the land – the chukars and herons that flap over dry hills and green farmland, cattle and deer that stare at him from the sagebrush as he passes, and even the occasional rattlesnake. 

Other days will find him chasing criminals through acres of winding hills, performing autopsies on dead farm animals, or jumpstarting cars using only fencing wire.

“I grew up here, and I trapped this country, my brother and I did,” said Belnap. “This was just a very fitting job for me, because I just knew the land. I didn’t have to learn it.”

He’s the first to occupy the backcountry job, created five years go. Belnap grew up in Vale, on a family farm just outside of town that he now manages with wife.  

In high school and college, he studied auto mechanics, placing in national competitions and eventually returning to Vale to work at the local Les Schwab. It would be a few years of auto work before he heard word of an opening in the sheriff’s office, and six years of working as a patrol officer before the backcountry slot opened.

Throughout his life, Belnap learned the county’s quiet roads and mesmerizing brush-dotted hills, and the wildlife that run through them: elk, bobcats, cougars, bears.

And in rural acres where cell service – and digital maps – can vanish for hours at a time, Belnap relies on his internal compass for navigation. 

‘Taking time to make connections with people all over the county is probably the biggest part of this. Creating those relationships to where people do want to call you, and know that the sheriff’s office is here for you if you need to call us.’

– Deputy Brian Belnap

“I’m not necessarily out here looking to catch people doing something wrong,” said Belnap. “I’m out here for the ranchers, the recreators in case they have trouble, for the motorists going up and down, or just to visit with people.”

As Belnap takes to the road – today driving through Brogan, past Ironside, and wrapping back around to Juntura – residents of Malheur County recognize and greet him all through his route, some stopping to chat on the way out of the gas station or waving from their vehicle as they pass by him on the road.

Belnap also makes an effort to build relationships around the county. The people he knows in the backcountry are valuable resources for the sheriff’s office, in cases of search and rescue or for long-timers in the country who pay attention and take note of new travelers or suspicious vehicles. But Belnap says more importantly, he hopes the sheriff’s office can be a resource to them.

“Taking time to make connections with people all over the county is probably the biggest part of this,” said Belnap. “Creating those relationships to where people do want to call you, [and know] that the sheriff’s office is here for you if you need to call us.”

Just beyond Ironside, Belnap turns down a small dirt lane to the driveway of Karen Wolfe, a 76-year-old retiree who lives at the bottom of the hill that’s been in her family since 1925. Wolfe is one of a few ranchers who live alone and stay in the country through spring and summer to run cattle.

Belnap steps out of his rig for a few moments as Wolfe and her ginger-haired dog, Kainn, greet him warmly. For a few minutes they chat about local deer and coyote sightings.

“When you come in and talk to these guys, you just kind of plan on taking as long as they need,” said Belnap. “They don’t have very many visitors.”

There were two people he missed that day who usually would’ve been “a minimum of an hour, talking on the side of the road,” he said.

Belnap also helps run a search and rescue team through the local sheriff’s office, occasionally gathering local volunteers for the effort. 

He recalls the time he chased down Shawn Greenwood, a local man who escaped into the backcountry after the shooting death of his girlfriend.

Belnap knew the road Greenwood would have to traverse to escape to Vale.

“I said, ‘we’re gonna sit on this pass over here,’” Belnap recalled. “That’s the only way – it was wintertime, and the other roads were not plowed. That’s the only way he’ll be able to make it this way.”

Sure enough, Greenwood appeared along that spot. But as Belnap approached the top of the hill, he saw the pickup on fire. Greenwood had thrown his rifle into the truck, poked a hole in the truck’s gas tank and lighting it on fire in an attempt to destroy evidence.

“We took him into custody, but I couldn’t get the fire out,” said Belnap. “I jumped into the pickup and drove it down the hill [into a snowbank] with this big puddle of fire.”

Another time, late into the night, Belnap encountered a group of kids in the backcountry whose car had broken down. By the time he happened across them, the car battery had died too – but with no jumper cables, he and another deputy used fence wire laying on the side of the road instead.

“You know, jumper cables are housed in red and black plastic, so they don’t touch, because then they complete the circuit,” said Belnap. “We were both just holding each end [of the fence wire], keeping them away from each other. Typically, that’s probably not a really good way to do it but it was the middle of the night.”

Eventually they succeeded in getting the car started and sent the kids on their way. 

“I remember the one kid, he’s like, ‘I’m not a car guy,’” said Belnap. 

“Little bit of advice – it pays to be a little bit of a car guy,” he joked.

But sometimes the route is quiet for hours. Belnap winds through burned juniper trees, their skeletons dotting the dry landscape, and through endless sagebrush and blue sky, the radio station fizzles out of reach of radio towers. He clicks it off.

Sometimes his thoughts wander – to a task he needs to do when he gets off work, responsibilities on the family farm, or an email he has to send.

 “But sometimes I’m just thinking of nothing,” Belnap said. “It’s just nice to stop everything, and listen to the chukars chirp.”

Malheur County Deputy Brian Belnap, born and raised in Vale, is the first backcountry patrol deputy covering lands in the Vale District of the Bureau of Land Management. (The Enterprise/CYNTHIA LIU)

EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM – Available for $7.50 a month. Subscribe to the digital service of the Enterprise and get the very best in local journalism. We report with care, attention to accuracy, and an unwavering devotion to fairness. Get the kind of news you’ve been looking for – day in and day out from the Enterprise.