"Eastern Oregon rancher rides herd on effort to name border collie the Oregon state dog"
Passing through Oregon cattle country, you see a lot of four-legged companions working with the ranchers. No, not horses -- cattle dogs, many of them border collies.
Prized for their intelligence, agility and herding instincts, border collies are a big part of everyday life here and have been for a long time. The connection between rural Oregon and these dogs is so profound, one man has embarked on a campaign to have the border collie declared Oregon's state dog, which means the border collie could join the American beaver, the chinook salmon, the Western meadowlark and the Oregon swallowtail as an official state animal by early next year.
Ron Folck and his wife, Jeanne, live on a hill overlooking Unity, a hamlet in Baker County. Ranch land as far as the eye can see. The setting sun dapples the hills on a warm evening, and his border collies are rearing to get out of their kennel and herd some sheep. Soon, each of the dogs takes a turn driving sheep this way and that, following Folck's hand signals and whistles. Finally, they bring the herd into the night pasture, where the sheep are safe from coyotes.
In the winter, this country is a lot less comfortable: five months of snow, with temperatures dipping below zero. There's a lot less to do then, which is why a few years ago Folck spent a winter studying the history of the dogs he appreciates so much. What he found made him determined to get the dogs some recognition. Folck lobbied the U.S. Postal Service for years to release a border collie stamp. "I got into the finals a few times," he says. "But it (the stamp) was never published."
In Oregon, past and present point to the border collie as state dog, Folck says. And he has a couple of influential allies who don't often find themselves on the same side of issues: Gov. Ted Kulongoski and state Sen. Ted Ferrioli. First, the governor's office sent Folck a letter praising the idea and suggesting he take it to the Legislature for a bill.
Folck did, by contacting Ferrioli, a resident of nearby John Day and leader of the state's Senate Republicans. Soon, Folck got a call from Ferrioli. "He said he'd love to do it," Folck said, something confirmed by Ferrioli's office.
"A border collie plays a big role in the senator's home district," Ferrioli spokesman Michael Gay said in explaining why Ferrioli will introduce the legislation written by Folck when the Legislature convenes in January. And, since there's no public expense involved in the declaration -- no tax breaks for border collie owners or anything like that -- Ferrioli's office told him the bill is likely to pass, Folck says.
"It's just (to honor) the history, nothing else," Folck says.
And that history goes back quite a ways. Folck says sheep were part of building the West, brought in to feed the miners. Border collies soon followed. Breeds weren't identified as well back then, certainly not among the pioneers settling Oregon, but Folck estimates that dogs containing at least some border collie DNA came to Oregon in the late 1800s.
The settlers' number grew, as did their cattle and sheep herds. Central Oregon soon became a world hub for sheep's wool. The biggest exchange, in Shaniko, shipped four million pounds of wool in 1901, according to "This Was Sheep Ranching," the definitive history book of the trade.
Folck gets excited thumbing through his copy of the book. He points to an old photo taken near Heppner in the early 1900s. A herd of sheep on the march stretches from the picture's bottom edge to the horizon. Flanking the long line of woollies are -- what else? -- dogs that look an awful lot like border collies. "It was big business back then," he says of the wool trade. "The dogs helped cut costs. One dog took the place of four or five guys on horses."
And it's not just ancient history. "My neighbors move cattle all the time with their dog on an ATV," Folck says. "They are highly mobile and go anyplace." (The dogs, not the ATVs.)
Oregon hosts large sheep dog trials, too. The annual competition in Klamath Falls is renowned around the country. Folck loves his border collies -- he breeds a litter every couple of years, he says. But that doesn't mean he thinks everyone should have one. "They're so active and can be hard-headed," he says. "They're meant for working, for herding."
He's looking forward to the day when the dogs get the official nod in this state. "There's so much history here that never gets told," he says. "The people of Oregon can be proud of their border collies."