Monday, December 7, 2009

Sheepman fighting to save flock

Thirty-some years ago when he left Utah State University after majoring in agricultural science and made his way to the family ranch in central Colorado, about the last place Sam Robinson thought he'd wind up was on the front page of the Los Angeles Times.

But there he was a week ago Friday, featured in an article with the headline, "Ranching, Recreation Collide in the Great Outdoors."

The story is about an incident from the summer of 2008, when two of Robinson's dogs were accused of attacking a woman riding a mountain bike. The assault resulted in injuries and a court action that branded Robinson — a good man his wife, Cheri, described to the Times as "a Sunday school teacher who has no record" — a criminal.

He was found guilty of a misdemeanor, fined, ordered to pay restitution and, in lieu of jail time, sentenced to 200 hours community service.

Now, Sam Robinson is fighting back.

Not because he hates being called a criminal (which he does). Not because he thinks dogs should bite people (which he does not).

He's fighting back because his entire way of life is in jeopardy.

And not just his way of life, the way of life of all ranchers who graze livestock on public land.

Robinson has seen this fight long coming. Slowly but steadily, he's watched civilization's advancements intrude on his ability to protect his sheep.

First there was the environmentalist-inspired government ban in the 1970s on all toxicants, meaning you couldn't poison the mountain lions, coyotes, bears and other natural predators of the herd.

Next came a crusade led by animal rights groups that resulted in a government ban on steel-jawed traps, followed by outlawing all baiting and scent lures.

All that was left for a sheepman to defend his herd was to shoot predators during a legal hunting season or when they were caught in the act.

It was like telling a store owner he couldn't lock the door when he went home at night.

But then the government advised Robinson of a new option that was enjoying some success elsewhere: livestock protection dogs.

These aren't mild-mannered border collie-type sheep dogs. These are SWAT-type dogs. Think Mr. T in a fur windbreaker.

Sam started using livestock protection dogs about 10 years ago. They haven't worked as well as traps and poison, he'll tell you, but they have managed to keep the sheep's natural predators somewhat at bay.

But they had no answer for the herd's most recent opponent: human beings wearing Lycra.

Every year, more and more recreationists — runners, bikers, hikers, climbers — invade the wide open spaces. To the point that even remote sheep camps are no longer remote.

"When I was a kid my dad said before I died I'd see Colorado become nothing but a playground," says Robinson, who is 54. "He was a visionary. He'd seen it coming. I was just stupid enough and stubborn enough to go ahead and see how it goes."

The irony of the inexorable squeeze by the playgrounders on ranchers, and on the commodities they produce, isn't lost on Robinson. "They think their food comes wrapped in plastic," he says, and then adds, "I'm not here to hurt anybody. I'm here to feed them. If that's not community service then I don't know what is."

The woman Robinson's dogs allegedly bit was bringing up the rear in an organized mountain bike race that started and finished practically on top of where Robinson's sheep had bedded down the night before. According to Robinson, he was not informed about the race by the recreation department in Vail that organized it. The protection dogs were tied up when the mass of riders passed through. But by the time the woman, beset by bike problems, came pedaling along much later, all alone, they were unchained.

Beyond recovering her medical expenses, she wanted whoever owned those dogs to go to jail.

Robinson finds more irony that his subsequent conviction, by a jury trial, for "harboring dangerous dogs," was meted out by the same government that encouraged him to harbor dangerous dogs in the first place.

He was quickly educated just how vulnerable he — and all dog-owning sheep ranchers — are to existing criminal law.

As written in the Colorado constitution, dogs that protect livestock are exempted from civil liability, but in a curious juxtaposition they are not exempted from criminal liability.

As a result, Robinson has gotten rid of his protection dogs — a second infraction would ruin him, he contends — and in a little more than a year without them he's already lost 26 percent of his herd to predators.

His can't-live-with-em, can't-live-without-em plight has attracted the attention of sheepherders across Colorado and throughout the West, not to mention the Los Angeles Times.

The bottom line: either he gets his conviction overturned (his lawyer has filed an appeal), the Colorado law rewritten and his dogs back, or …

"Or I'm finished," he says.

"When my grandfather first got here," the 21st century sheepherder reminisces, "he wore a six-shooter all the time. Back then the sheepmen were under fire from the cattlemen. Now we get along pretty well with the cattle people. But we're under fire from the mountain bikers. It's a modern range war. A clash of cultures.

"It's all good range," he says of the 55,000 mountainous acres where his herd of 1,300 sheep roam. "A lot of it's steep hillsides. It's not good for cows. But it's real good for sheep. But if I can't get this law changed so I can protect my herd, my odds of staying alive are none."

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