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Ranching, recreation collide in the great outdoors

The Los Angeles times: Ranching, recreation collide in the great outdoors

The mountain biker was excited about her big race in Colorado’s wilderness. And nothing irked the sheepherder like the sports crowd. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

By Nicholas Riccardi
November 27, 2009

Reporting from Camp Hale, Colo. - As soon as Renee Legro saw the sheep, she screamed.

The herd, 1,300 strong, has been coming for 30 years to graze in this valley on the backside of the Continental Divide. But as Colorado has become an adventure sports destination, the once-empty valley has filled with hikers, campers and mountain bikers like Legro, and she was about to tragically embody the collision of the old West with the new.

Legro, 33, screamed because she knew what came with the herd -- guard dogs. Shortly after she rolled down a hill and came upon the sheep, a dog leaped at her, locked its jaws on her hip and yanked her off her bike.

A second dog pounced as she fell. The two enormous canines, powerful enough to fend off bears, tore at her until her cries drew two campers who drove them off. The emergency-room doctor lost count of how many stitches she required.

To Legro and her husband, Steve, there was one person responsible -- Sam Robinson. One of a dwindling number of sheepherders in Colorado’s mountains, Robinson, 54, turned to guard dogs a decade ago, after the state banned the use of traps to prevent mountain lions, coyotes and bears from destroying herds.

"We don’t have any other option," Robinson said.

The Legros see things differently. In their years of hiking, biking and skiing the magnificent open spaces near Vail, they have fled from ranchers’ dogs several times. "I cannot bring my dog up to the forest and let it run wild and attack people," said Steve Legro, 37. "Neither should anyone else."

They wanted Robinson charged with a crime.

This fall, on a blustery day 14 months after the attack, Robinson drove through the high mountain valley in his beaten Ford F-250 pickup. A rifle leaned against the dashboard, and an empty can of Rockstar energy drink sat in the cup holder.

With the perpetually tan face of someone who spends his time outside, Robinson explained how his way of life was under attack.

"It’s the suburban mentality -- they think their milk comes out of a plastic jug, they think their meat comes out of a container," he said. "They don’t realize you have to live like a Third World person to produce meat in the United States."

A herder who can trace sheepherding back generations in his family, he grew up helping his father run sheep on the Flat Tops, 10,000-foot-high plateaus northwest of here. Robinson’s three children learned to walk at a pass at 12,000 feet -- on 25,000 acres where the National Forest Service permits his herd to graze each summer.

At the center of the land lies Camp Hale, formerly an Army base, now a huge draw for summertime recreation. Robinson would move his herd when warned of a major event at the camp, such as a religious meeting that drew tens of thousands. But the Lycra-clad vacation crowd irks him.

"My dad warned me, this state was going to be turned into one big playground," Robinson said. He sees sheepherding as environmentally virtuous, unlike the recreation industry, which has filled his beloved mountains with bike shops, hotels and spas -- and the sewers and electrical lines to support them.

"You’re producing a very high quality product from fresh air, sunshine and rain," he said of raising sheep. The recreation industry, he said, "produces smiles and giggles but not much else."

Robinson revels in his unusual lifestyle. "It’s almost like time travel. During the day I’m doing the same thing they were doing 6,000 years ago," he said. "Then we go to Denver and see the opera, watch planes land at the airport."

Robinson and his wife, Shari, were returning from a trip to the Midwest on July 9, 2008, when they swung by to check on the herd, being tended by a hired Peruvian shepherd. They were startled to find the area overrun with mountain bikers. Vail’s recreation department had scheduled a bike race and never informed the herders.

The Robinsons figured their dogs wouldn’t be a problem, though five days earlier one, Lucy, bit a jogger and was taken away by animal control. It was the first time, the couple said, any of their dogs behaved aggressively toward a person.

The Robinsons ordered the remaining two -- Tiny, 9, and Pastor, 11 -- tied up during daylight to avoid another incident. The race was set to conclude before sundown.

Though not trained to attack people, the dogs, both white Great Pyrenees, were fierce protectors of Robinson’s herd. Pastor’s muzzle bore scars from skirmishes with coyotes. Tiny once chased a mountain lion up a cedar tree.

For Renee Legro, the July 9 event was to be her first race in years. A Chicago native who fell in love with Colorado on family ski vacations, she moved near Vail after getting her degree in speech pathology in 2000.

She married Steve Legro, a fugitive from Boston’s urban sprawl. They hike and bike, but in outdoor-crazed Colorado they are more a normal, middle-class couple than extreme adventurers.

Caring for their daughter, Megan, born in 2007, had kept Renee off a mountain bike until she and a friend signed up for the race. "This was going to be my one big night out," she said.

During the race, she was beset by problems with her bike, first a snapped chain, then a flat tire. By the time she fixed the flat, the sun was setting and the race largely over. Renee could have returned to the start with a race organizer but decided to finish the course.

She was almost done when she descended the hill and saw the sheep in her path.

Eagle County animal control officers told the Robinsons there would be no criminal charges. Tiny and Pastor were quarantined and could never be let loose again, so the Robinsons requested they be destroyed. They asked their insurers to contact Renee and figured that was the end of it.

But the Legros were outraged. They felt the Robinsons weren’t showing remorse and heard -- inaccurately, the Robinsons say -- that they were still using guard dogs even after the attack.

The Legros spent weeks scouring state laws and collecting stories of other recreationists threatened by ranchers’ dogs. Finally, they persuaded Eagle County Dist. Atty. Mark Hurlbert to treat the case like any dog attack. He charged Robinson with a single misdemeanor -- ownership of a dangerous dog.

"Unfortunately," Hurlbert said, "his dogs committed a crime."

In Colorado, owners of a dog that protects livestock are exempt from civil liability for bites. There is no exemption in criminal law. To convict Robinson, prosecutors merely had to prove his dogs bit Renee.

Alarmed, Robinson decided he couldn’t get new dogs to protect his herd. "I would never touch another of them, not the way that law reads," he said. "No matter how good a dog is, you never know."

But free of the protective dogs, Robinson’s herd was raided by predators. He lost 26% of his sheep in the last year. His sense of victimization grew. First the state had outlawed the traps that kept his herd safe. Now, he said, it was taking away his last line of defense.

In September, Robinson appeared in Eagle County Municipal Court and argued that other dogs, not his, could have been responsible for the attack. But after Renee recounted the mauling in agonizing detail, the six-member jury convicted Robinson at the end of a one-day trial.

At the sentencing in October, the Robinsons, including Sam’s 87-year-old father, and their supporters sat on the left side of the courtroom. The Legros -- and Renee’s parents and brother -- sat on the right.

Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Sullivan tried to promote a reconciliation, or at least a truce, but that was not to happen. "These two sides of the room," she said, "don’t have any understanding of what the other side has gone through."

The Legros spoke first. Tearing up, Renee Legro said she had to close her fledgling speech pathology business after losing a month to hospitalization and weeks after that to depression and insecurity.

She faces more surgery and has trouble walking, and she is terrified around dogs -- including the family’s 16-year-old pet, Sarah. "I’m not as confident as I used to be," she told the judge. "I’m not as strong as I used to be."

Legro asked for jail time, but Sullivan was clearly reluctant. "Dogs end up being the last protection the herd can have," the judge said.

Sullivan asked Robinson if he had thought of moving his herd out of Camp Hale. Robinson, who was forbidden by his insurance company from admitting to the attack, said he was required to graze there under his deal with the Forest Service. If he had been warned of the race, he reiterated, he could have moved them and avoided what he called "this whole horrific thing."

Sullivan asked the Legros if that changed their stance.

It didn’t. "No one seems to get the idea that these dogs need to be taught not to bite someone," Steve Legro said.

Sullivan spared Robinson jail -- he could have received up to 18 months -- but ordered him to perform 500 hours of community service and to donate $500 to charity.

Each side left the courtroom unhappy. "This is a Sunday school teacher who has no record who’s suddenly a criminal," Shari Robinson said of her husband.

The Legros said they had been torn about asking for jail time but felt that Robinson remained unrepentant. "He is so focused on his right to be there that he couldn’t bring himself to see what it is like on the other side," Renee Legro said.

The couple returned to their home in Eagle, a middle-class community largely inhabited by families priced out of Vail. They live in a new two-story house in a development designed to resemble the Victorian and Craftsman-style homes that speckle these mountain towns.

The small subdivision and its nearby park are filled with young families walking their dogs.