Layne Spence still brings his two malamute dogs, Rex and Frank, to run along the Clark Fork River in Missoula, but he’s not ready to take them back into the woods.
“This is where I let them run around,” Spence said on a winter afternoon near the Higgins Avenue Bridge. “You can tell they need to run. But we were out on the Kim Williams Trail where they were doing some work, and when somebody used a nail gun, the dogs just freaked out.”
On Nov. 17, a hunter shot and killed Spence’s third malamute, Little Dave, on the road above Lee Creek Campground near Lolo Pass. Spence was cross-country skiing with Little Dave, Rex and Frank a few hundred yards from the road gate when he heard gunshots and saw the dog get hit. Spence said he screamed for the man to stop, but the shooting continued.
The hunter approached Spence and said he mistook Little Dave for a wolf. All three pet dogs were wearing lighted collars. The incident took place in the middle of Montana’s hunting season, but on a closed road popular for winter recreation.
Spence reported the incident to the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department, which determined it had no basis for further investigation. There is no state law making it a criminal act to accidentally kill someone’s domestic pet.
The sheriff’s office also sent details to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the U.S. Forest Service. Both agencies found no legal basis to charge the hunter with a crime.
Several days after the incident became public, the hunter appeared at the sheriff’s department. After an interview, officials reconfirmed their previous position – no law was broken. They did not release the man’s identity or further details of the interview.
Still, Spence wants justice.
“I’m not going to let it go,” Spence said. “I’ve seen the sheriff’s report, but I’m not supposed to talk about it. I’m leaving it in my lawyer’s hands.”
Spence has also talked with state Rep. Ellie Boldman Hill, D-Missoula. Hill said she’s working on legislation that could address the matter.
“If he (the hunter) would have shot an elk on accident, there would have been immediate liability,” Hill said. “But because he shot somebody’s pet, there isn’t a space in the law that fits. With domesticated pets, there’s a loophole in the law. We’ve heard from Montana Hunters and Anglers and the Montana Wildlife Federation they want that loophole fixed as well.”
Hill said she’ll be working with the Montana Prosecuting Attorneys Association on a couple of possible angles. One could be modifying the state’s cruelty to animals law, which now doesn’t apply to accidents. Another avenue might be to put more onus on hunters to know their target by putting pets on the same threshold as other poached wildlife.
Despite several offers, Spence said he will not get another dog to replace Little Dave. And while he’s also had offers for financial help in a lawsuit against either the hunter or law enforcement agencies, he said he wanted the effort to be directed at preventing future tragedies.
“I don’t want attention on me,” Spence said. “I want it on my dog, so this doesn’t happen to someone else. When I said this was like losing one of my kids, someone commented I should know what it’s like to actually lose a child. Well, I do. My daughter was killed by a drunk driver in 1987.”