Kona's Story

I have often wondered if I'm too protective - paranoid even - toward the girls.

After learning Kona's story, I'll no longer wonder. I'm neither paranoid, nor too protective. If anything, I now know all too well how things can go horribly wrong.

The girls and I took advantage of a relatively wild-fire-smoke-free morning by driving out into the Payette for a run two days ago. I wanted to approach Hazard Lake from a different trail head. After an hour's drive, we found the new access point and started out. Even before I let the girls out of the car, I heard a far off animal sound. At first I thought it was wolves howling, and was thrilled. Then....I couldn't quite tell what it was, but definitely not wolves. I let the girls out and we started slowly up the trail. They stopped within a couple of minutes, both looking toward our destination - Hazard Lake - with ears perked and bodies alert. Ah...livestock. Lots of livestock. That's what we were hearing. I couldn't tell from the far off cacophony of sound whether they were cattle or sheep, but it didn't matter - I didn't want to encounter either. The girls are fine with cattle, now - we see them so regularly near the house and even grazing in the forest right behind us that they no longer consider chasing them. But sheep? Whole 'nother matter.

Here's the deal: in Idaho, ranchers can lease federal forest land to graze their livestock during the summer months. The livestock freely munch on the grasses, flowers and shrubs that grow under the trees. The dusty and denuded landscape, littered with cow pies, and streams cloudy with mud and waste, tell the tale. The cattle are left to roam unattended, rounded up and moved to lower ground outside the forest in the fall. Sheep, however, are always accompanied by a few Basque herders (usually Basque, anyway - quite interesting to see them and read about this traditional herding lifestyle) with horses carrying their camping provisions, a couple of Border Collies to help herd, and at least one large white guard dog - typically a Great Pyrenees or Kuvasz.

The guard dogs are bred and trained to kill wolves.

You don't want to mess with one of those guard dogs.

If you're not extraordinarily careful, however, you can't avoid it.

The casual hiker, runner or mountain biker has no way of knowing where the cattle or sheep are grazing at any point in time. They cover huge areas, always moving. A trail head sign might have a posting, warning of sheep guarded by dogs in the area, advising that you keep your own dog leashed or close by. Sometimes, driving through the forest to a trail head, we've been stopped as a herd clogs and crosses the road. The girls get very interested in all those sheep surrounding our stalled car as they make their way down the road. Once, at the tail end of the herd was the guard dog, big and shaggy and all business. I was thankful, that day, that my girls rarely bark, because just as the guard dog got alongside the car, his nose went up and he realized there were other, strange dogs nearby. He came right up to us, searching. Because the herd had now passed, I was able to start driving to get away from him. That was all I needed to see to know I did not want to encounter such a dog in the forest.

So I made an executive decision to abandon our planned route for the day. The girls were puzzled; they, of course, would have considered it a great day to be able to see a huge herd of sheep up close.

Unwilling to waste the entire morning, I drove a couple miles back down the road to another trail head I was familiar with. While doing so, I saw some cattle near the road and realized the herd I had avoided wasn't sheep. Still - no sense tempting fate.

We went to Grass Mountain Lakes, an eight mile round trip with lots of hills, dust, and ultimately, lakes and meadows. We had the trail to ourselves - no livestock, no humans. I got lots of great photos of the girls.

Just as we reached the bottom of the trail, at the road, a forest service ranger drove by. He stopped to chat. Pointing to the girls, he commented, "Nice orange vests." I explained that people here too often assumed the girls were wolves, or hybrids, and I didn't want any misunderstandings. He nodded in agreement, and said he knew of a dog shot by a sheep herder just recently.

My heart sank. Somehow, with no more information than that, I knew. I just knew.

"Was it Kona?" I cautiously asked.

The ranger seemed shocked that I had guessed correctly. I explained how I'd come to know Kona and his owner, John; how John had sought me out for advice on northern breed dogs, concerned with how Kona would range far away when off leash in the forest. We had discussed ways to address it. John also works for the forest service, and he knows all too well what can happen to any dog that "harasses" livestock in this state. Kona, a gorgeous male "husky shepherd mix" (who both John and I believed was actually a wolf hybrid he'd adopted from a shelter in Arizona) was about seven, and John feared he'd never tame his desire to roam and hunt.

Kona's tragic story, as related by the ranger I met on the road, goes like this: A friend of John's took Kona for a hike on Twenty Mile Trail, a very popular trail with hikers and mountain bikers because motorized vehicles are prohibited. It's a gorgeous place, full of giant boulders, tall pines, open meadows, and small creeks. The girls and I have gone there often. John's friend had no idea sheep were in the area, and so let Kona off leash. Kona found the sheep. The herder, thinking Kona was a wolf, shot him.

There are four primary victims in all of this: Kona; John; John's friend; the herder. According to the ranger, the herder was horrified to learn Kona was a pet, and felt awful about shooting him.

The secondary victims are all the rest of us who try to partake of the forest's beauty and peace.

Maybe an orange vest would have averted this tragedy.

Maybe not.

The Basque herders have their orders: shoot any wolf - or dog - that harasses the herd. Even on public land.

If the herder hadn't killed Kona, the guard dog would have.

I wish I had a photo of Kona to post with this entry, as a small memorial. He was a lovely dog. Gentle with people and dogs. The girls liked him, flirted with him. He loved to run. He died doing what dogs are genetically programmed to do. He died because he looked too much like a wolf.

Something has to change. There's a madness in Idaho and other western states when it comes to wolves. It doesn't matter to the ranchers that they'll be monetarily compensated for any livestock lost to wolf predation (i.e. wolves doing what they naturally do on their own territory); they demand and use the right to shoot to kill and ask questions later. That myopic madness can end up not only decimating the wolf populations that have scratched their way back into the local ecosystems from earlier extermination by ranchers, but kill our dogs and endanger our own safety as we try to enjoy the public lands set aside for our recreation.