It's like somebody burglarized their homes. They have been robbed of something that was incredibly precious to them. —Clark Caras, executive director of the Utah State Fair
BENJAMIN, Utah County — Kelly Olsen, a senior at Spanish Fork High School, has spent three to four hours every day of the past four years tending to her prize-winning lambs.
But on Tuesday, the girl who raised the Grand Champion lamb at the 2011 Utah State Fair saw her animals, and all the work that had gone into them, destroyed.
"Every single day when I get home from school I'll go down to the farm," she said. "I went to take bales of hay to the field where (the sheep) were at, and I pulled up to the gate and found three dead sheep and one barely alive and a dog was laying with it."
She described seeing the bodies of her lambs that were "ripped to pieces." Other ewes, pregnant with lambs, panicked and ran into a ditch where they drowned. Her family estimates that between 21 and 26 animals died or were killed.
In 2010, the last year that data was available, 23,300 of Utah's sheep were killed by predators. Coyotes accounted for 12,800 of those deaths, but dogs were responsible for 800. The attacks are not uncommon, but those affected by them say the impact is devastating.
"When I saw all the dead animals, I got really upset and depressed because I put all this hard work into them and to see it all go away just that quick, you can't really replace the ones that we lost because those were really different genetics," she said.
The lambs were part of a project for Future Farmers of America that the teenager hoped would provide lambs during the seven to eight years she expects to spend in veterinary school.
Utah County sheriff's officials estimated Friday that the lambs were worth between $20,000 and $30,000, among the registered sheep that make up the state's population of 300,000 commercial and registered sheep, according to the Utah Woolgrower's Association.
The teenager said the dog that killed her sheep appeared to be a domesticated animal, because when it saw her, it ran and hid like a puppy that realized it had done something wrong.
"It looked like (a dog) that's been kept," she said. "It was not a stray. It acted friendly almost."
Kip Olsen, Kelly's father, said three dogs were spotted among the remaining carcasses Friday morning. His father shot and killed one, but the other two ran away. Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Cannon said officials are using the description of the animals to try and track them down and find their owners.
"If we are able to determine which dogs did the killing of the sheep, then there would be criminal charges and reimbursement to the owner of the sheep," Cannon said.
He said any charges would most likely be misdemeanors and may come with restitution requirements.
Kip Olsen said his daughter had a small insurance policy on the animals, but echoed his daughter's sentiments that there was no way to replicate the lambs.
"Insurance just does not take care of the magnitude of it," he said. "It's the genetics that are the baseline of the herd that has made things so successful for her for the last couple of years."
Clark Caras, executive director of the Utah State Fair, said attacks happen almost every year, but this one was especially disappointing considering Kelly's young age and successes.
"I know this family and this is their livelihood," he said. "It's like somebody burglarized their homes. They have been robbed of something that was incredibly precious to them."
To Caras, a native of Benjamin and a veteran of the sheep farming business, the incident typifies the "clash between urban and rural Utah" and he had a strong word to describe what he thinks of the result.
"It's an act of terrorism — people who let their dog run loose," he said.
Benjamin is a tiny town of a few clustered homes, an LDS church and ranch land west of Spanish Fork. Most of the farmers and ranchers who have been in the valley for decades have dogs that are trained to work with livestock. But even those dogs will be put down if they ever bite another animal deep enough to draw blood.
"Those animals can roam for miles and they aren't far from the generation of wolves they evolved from," Caras said. "All it takes is the taste of a little bit of blood and the natural instinct will kick in. It's up to the dog owner, before they go to bed, to know where their animal is."
State wildlife officials said domesticated dogs can cause problems even for animals much larger than them.
"It's not that uncommon to have dogs chasing deer and occasionally even killing them," Scott Root of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said. "It does happen, so the division definitely encourages pet owners to have control of their pets when they're out."
The Animal and Wildlife Damage Prevention Team, made up of officers from state and federal agencies, tries to protect sheep, lambs and calves from traditional predators, such as coyotes, Utah Department of Agriculture and Food spokesman Larry Lewis said. The goal is to keep the losses below 5 percent of the livestock population.
"There is a considerable amount of time and energy spent to protect livestock and wildlife in Utah," Lewis said.
He said if a specific problem predator can be identified, a hunter or trapper will go out to find, trap and kill the animal.
"They can't just willy-nilly start killing wild animals," Lewis explained. "They have to find the specific one that did it and go after that one."
Benjamin resident Jim Caras, father of Clark Caras and sheep farmer with 65 years' experience, said the impact of attacks on animals are hard to overcome and they can make the loss for someone like Kelly that much deeper.
"You don't know how to put a value, really, on what she's lost because even the ones that just got chased, they'll have problems down the road," he said. "It seems like the animals never settle down. When you walk in amongst them they're scared to death of everything."
Contributing: Randall Jeppesen, Paul Nelson