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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.

November 27, 2009|By Nicholas Riccardi
  • While riding her mountain bike, Renee Legro of Eagle, Colo., was attacked by two dogs guarding a flock of sheep. The emergency room doctor who treated her lost track of how many stitches she required. The sheep belonged to a rancher who was convicted in September of owning dangerous dogs.
While riding her mountain bike, Renee Legro of Eagle, Colo., was attacked… (Nathan W. Armes / For The…)

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.

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