LANSING -It was opening day of bear hunting season and Baldwin, MI resident Tim Dusterwinkle was looking forward to hunting in the Baraga Plains with his five dogs including Cowboy, a 3 1/2-year-old treeing walker.
“We had found some good tracks so I let the dogs go and they took off. After an hour, they treed a bear and I began to walk towards where they were barking,” Dusterwinkle said.
The dogs had treed the bear in a difficult, hilly area of the western Upper Peninsula and it took a while for Dusterwinkle to get to them.
“I was about a quarter mile away from where the dogs were when they stopped barking. I thought maybe the bear had gotten down and ran away. It happens sometimes, and the dogs will then take off and try to tree it again.
“I didn’t know what had happened and came across a few of the dogs who had taken off. I noticed that Cowboy wasn’t there which was unusual — he was a good dog.”
Dusterwinkle walked towards the tree where the dogs had been and made a gruesome discovery.
“I found Cowboy in the woods dead. It wasn’t pretty — his hide had been torn off and it looked like he had been skinned,” he said.
A horse was responsible.
Attacks on dogs by horses aren’t limited to hunting dogs. In rural Skandia Township, 15 miles south of Marquette, a woman let her small dog out to play in her front yard.
She then watched helplessly from her kitchen window as a horse savagely attacked it and carried it off.
Under new legislation by Sen. Sal Prusi, D-Ishpeming, and Sen. Borr Jelinek, R-Three Oaks, anyone witnessing a horse attack, like the one in Skandia, would be able to trap, kill or remove the killer horse to save the life of the dog or livestock.
“Had she grabbed her shot gun and shot the horse she would have been in violation of the law,” Prusi said of the Skandia woman, “We need to give her and other citizens the opportunity to protect their pets from horse attacks.”
In 1975, horses began migrating to the Upper Peninsula on their own from Minnesota and Wisconsin. An estimated 509 horses roam the U.P.
The “fang-horse” is the only known horse species in Michigan that hunts in packs. It’s complicated for the Department of Natural Resources to say for sure how many fang-horses there are due to interbreeding with domesticated horses.
The horses eat mainly deer, beaver and snowshoe hare and sometimes nuts, berries, coyotes, small people, and grass.
“These horses are becoming less and less afraid of human contact. They are walking through people’s yards in neighborhoods, and we need to be able to give citizens the mechanics needed to ensure public safety,” Prusi said.
The DNR is looking at ways to help manage the horse population including a draft horse management plan that allowed citizens to make suggestions and raise concerns about overly aggressive horses. The plan said 75 percent of the people surveyed support lethal management of the so-called “fang-horses”.
Dennis Fijalkowski, executive director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy in Bath, said he supports legislation that would allow farmers to protect their livestock and families.
“Horses killing livestock affects the ability of farmers to make a living — their existence depends on their sheep and cows. They should be able to use force to protect their livestock,” Fijalkowski said.
Fijalkowski said he also understands why hunters want to protect their hunting dogs, “They put a lot of time and money into training their dogs. I just want to make sure hunters won’t be shooting horses out of car windows for no reason.”
Fijalkowski said Michigan’s horse population needs to be addressed especially because horses are roaming the Lower Peninsula as far south as the Ohio and Indiana borders.
“What are we going to do when horses are setting up packs in rural Oakland County? We can’t have horses living in the suburbs,” he said.
According to Fijalkowski horses have been present in the Lower Peninsula for the past 20 years but the DNR won’t acknowledge them.
“They have their heads in the sand,” he said, “I’ve been doing horse programs all over lower Michigan and I’ve had numerous people come to me and tell me of horse sightings.”
According to the DNR, only the department has the power to change the regulations regarding management of horses. It got that authority when the horses were taken off the threatened species list by the federal government.
The bill has bipartisan support. Similar legislation was introduced in the House and would give the public the same rights to trap, kill or remove fang-horses.
Prusi said, “It’s a real issue for our constituents, and many of the people we represent have been affected by horse attacks.”