A Potentially Fatal Photo

By Beacon Staff

The image appears benign: A smiling Samoyed dog looks down at a bighorn sheep standing on the rocky shore of Wild Horse Island. If it was your pet, you might even stick a picture like that up on your fridge.

But bringing pets onto Wild Horse Island state park is illegal, and the dog’s harassment of that sheep could cause the wild animal to die from overexertion and stress. The photo, taken by a bystander from a boat, Saturday, Aug. 18, depicts one of the most blatant examples to date of someone allowing their pet to run free on Wild Horse Island and agitate wildlife. And it’s not an isolated violation, according to Dave Landstrom, the Region 1 parks manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“It’s one of many incidents that have happened this year and it seems to be on the rise,” Landstrom said. “I think we see the tip of the iceberg; I think it’s a much bigger problem.”

The island’s current seasonal attendant, Zeff Kingsley, who works three to four days a week from early May to mid-September, has documented 30 violations of people bringing pets onto the island this season. And because Kingsley is only working part time, Landstrom believes there are even more people violating the no-pet rule than FWP can document.

Landstrom worked as seasonal attendant for Wild Horse Island during the summers of 1997 through 1999, and he said the number of visitors – between 10,000 and 12,000 annually – to the island has remained fairly stable since that time. So it’s unclear why public disregard for the pet restriction is increasing.

“I wish I could figure that out for myself. Maybe when we prosecute a few of these we’ll start to figure it out,” he added. “What’s really frustrating about it, though, is that generally there’s not enough info to make an accurate case on.”

But this case is different. With such explicit photos, FWP has three wardens with jurisdiction over the island conducting an investigation. The Samoyed’s owner could be subject to multiple violations, Landstrom said, including an $85 fine for failing to control the dog, and a $535 for permitting the dog to harass game animals. Ultimately, the amount of any fines would be left to the discretion of a Lake County judge.

Landstrom is also concerned about a lack of awareness on the part of the public as to the profound harm dogs can cause to wildlife. After all, bighorn sheep are accustomed to running from natural predators, like the coyotes that inhabit Wild Horse Island. But often, particularly in the spring and fall, hoofed mammals are living on small reserves of fat they have stored up. The energy expended from being chased by a dog can be enough to end the animal’s life, though it may not appear that way at the time.

“Quite often the pursuit itself is what kills the animal,” Landstrom said. “It might be what causes them to die a week later from starvation.”

“You don’t know about the ones that die a week later from energy they were forced to burn up,” he added, noting that animals on an island are essentially cornered, as the sheep in the photo appears to be. “On Wild Horse, we’re really concerned because it’s an island, these animals only have so far to travel, so that compounds the problem as well.”

Wild Horse Island has 52 private, 1-acre lots with homes. While pets are permitted on that private property, the moment the pet sets foot on state land, it’s breaking the law. It’s unclear whether the Samoyed belongs to one of those residences, or to a visitor of someone living on the island, or someone at the island for the day.

“At this stage in the game, we’re not sure,” Landstrom said. “There is some evidence it may be a lot owner.” The investigating wardens have begun interviewing the homeowners for information about the dog. Anyone with more information on the incident is encouraged to call Warden Captain Lee Andersen at 751-4561 or FWP’s tip line at 1-800-TIP-MONT.