‘K-9 hero’ left a legacy of bravery
One of the greatest allies in a struggle to reclaim public land overtaken by the explosion of illegal marijuana grows was a dog named Ice, whose recent passing reverberated through the national forest community and beyond, calling his most impressive contributions into the spotlight.
Throughout his 10-year career, Ice earned accolades as a top U.S. Forest Service law enforcement narcotics and patrol K-9, during an era of industrial-scale black market marijuana supply emanating from the forests along the California-Oregon border.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, “the protection of people, property and resources on U.S. Forest Service-managed lands” depends upon a well trained K-9 team, which apprehends suspects, detects narcotics, locates evidence, tracks people and provides community demonstrations.
Ice enjoyed more than a year of retirement — learning how to be a couch dog after a life of athletic service — before he died at the end of January, a few weeks before his 13th birthday Feb. 19.
“They live for the work,” said Patrol Captain Christopher Magallon, Ice’s partner, in an interview Wednesday. “His role had been to do some amazing work, so I tried to keep him engaged to make him think, ‘you still have a job to do,’ and that involved playing a lot of fetch.”
During his working career, Ice survived two major injuries on the job, but made his mark as a gregarious yet “tough as nails” K-9 prior to assaults in 2016 and 2020, Magallon said.
“He was already a legend in his own right before those happened,” Magallon said. “Because he was so endearing to the teams that he kept safe, that’s part of the reason why those incidents were made a little bit more public, because of the importance that he had in protecting our public lands in California.”
Ice and Magallon paired up in November 2010 and became a certified USFS K-9 team in May 2011. Ice, a Belgian malinois, retired Sept. 31, 2020, having served nearly a decade working in remote, rugged conditions.
Magallon said they grew together through shared experiences, deepening an understanding of each team member’s role in protecting overall safety.
Ice “definitely knew his job,” he said.
They started on the Mendocino National Forest, where in 2008 more than 60 illegal marijuana cultivation sites were documented in the district, Magallon said, and over time, the team was called to work in many forests facing a growing, destructive issue.
“The problem isn’t so much what they’re cultivating, the real problem is multifaceted,” Magallon said. “Water is so precious [in the region], and maintaining our resources and protecting our resources affects everybody.”
The environmental degradation to public lands as a result of illegal cultivation includes damage to soil and wildlife, and pollution in rivers and watersheds, impacting everything downstream and the landscape as a whole, he said.
“We’re trying to prevent that, and then hold accountable those that create that horrific damage to our public lands,” Magallon said.
On average, the K-9 team worked 20-30 sites during a cultivation season, traveling to different locations throughout California. In none of the operations in which Ice was involved was any officer injured, and in many cases when lethal force could have been justified, Ice’s ability to de-escalate situations saved suspects’ lives as well, he said.
In August 2020, the team entered an illegal grow site on the Klamath National Forest from a trail that suspects used to move product and supplies, and as they advanced, multiple suspects came down the trail toward them, leaving the team at a “huge tactical disadvantage” in low ground, Magallon said.
The team announced their presence and the suspects fled — in such cases the police team faces the possibility that the suspects ran to notify others, locate a cache of weapons and/or find a location with a better advantage, he said.
Ice was released to catch a suspect who fled down a steep hill to escape the raid, which uncovered more than 5,500 plants, and kept hold despite the suspect striking him with an object nine times, until Magallon made the arrest and applied first aid. A vest protected Ice’s vital organs, but blood poured from wounds to his muzzle and head, Magallon said, and he was rushed to emergency care.
In July 2016, Ice survived a severe injury sustained during a mission to arrest those suspected of cultivating in the Six Rivers National Forest, about three-quarters of a mile from the closest road.
Ice apprehended a suspect, who stabbed the dog in the chest and face in the few moments before Magallon reached them. Despite critical injury, Ice stayed on task until officers took the suspect into custody. Three officers carried the 60-pound bandaged dog on their shoulders across rough terrain to call for a helicopter.
“The work that these dogs do, they’re a part of these teams, so we treat them with that same regard as we would another officer,” Magallon said. “They’re dogs, but at the same time the role that they do to protect us, we have to do everything in our ability, reasonably, to protect them as well.”
Ice survived a “very deep wound to the neck,” associate veterinarian Dr. Dennis Grummitt said in a video about the incident. The attack occurred 40-50 miles west of the Redding vet hospital.
“I don’t know if another dog would have come back from such a violent attack like that,” Patrol Captain Carson Harris said in the video. “Ice is probably the best K-9 the Forest Service has in the nation, and he had earned that status prior to that violent attack.”
Though Ice’s equipment came to feature a stab-proof vest, challenging topography and heat also posed risks — “it’s a balance” of protecting the dogs and avoiding fatal heat injury, Magallon said.
“Where we work, it gets to be 100 degrees in pretty steep, nasty terrain,” said Tory Smith, USFS officer and K-9 handler. “These dogs are willing to make those hikes, deal with the heat, deal with exhaustion.”
After recovery, Ice’s reintegration began on “light duty,” taking rides in the truck, socializing with friends, spending time in the office while Magallon completed paperwork, and joining an assignment on the Law Enforcement Exclusive Helicopter, Magallon said in a 2016 USFS article about K-9 officers.
“He got to ride around in the helicopter, hang around at the landing zone, and travel just to remind him he’s still a part of the team,” Magallon said in the article.
In 2017, Magallon and Ice received the Law Enforcement and Investigations Director’s Award for Bravery, Valor or Heroic Act — for the first time, awarded to a four-legged officer. Ice was voted top dog in the Law Enforcement/Arson dog category at the 2017 American Humane Hero Dog Awards.
Among Ice’s defining characteristics: an abiding capacity for social connection, approachability and effectiveness at carrying out his duties, Magallon said. He could switch from a belly rub in a school setting to a tense, dynamic situation (and back to belly rubs) on a dime. Many working K-9s aren’t as social, he said.
In 2013, the K-9 team encountered two suspects upon entering a cultivation site — one fled and Magallon deployed Ice. When he reached them, finding the suspect tangled in vegetation and Ice on task, the suspect repeated “that’s a very good dog,” Magallon recounted.
The team determined later that the suspect attempted to draw a gun when law enforcement came into view, and Ice had grabbed the suspect’s arm and knocked the gun to the ground. Among teams, Ice’s fame bred trust.
“His reputation preceded him by far,” Magallon said. “People had a lot of trust in him because of these stories they knew, so they had a lot more confidence in what they were going to do that day.”
Both members of a K-9 team bear the responsibility of quick decision-making, Magallon said. Ice’s aptitude for taking in an environment, noise, people, and a dynamic situation was unparalleled.
“We’re typically up front, so a lot of decisions that we were entrusted to make came down to Ice,” Magallon said. “The safety of these teams rested on Ice Dog’s shoulders.”
In 2020, the team received the USFS LEI Director’s Impact Award for their performance during a July 4 active shooter incident on the Tahoe National Forest in which a man was killed and his 15-year-old son fled from the shooter, becoming lost in thick terrain. Ice and Magallon were one of the first teams to reach the teen after being deployed for the search, while another K-9 team apprehended the shooter.
“Ice Dog essentially located that missing, scared 15-year-old, and it was very much a capping to everything that Ice Dog had done,” Magallon said.
A Klamath National Forest press release Jan. 28 described Ice as a “canine hero,” and “one of the most devoted and hardworking employees” in the agency’s history, recognized as the most highly decorated canine in the U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations branch.
“During his career, Ice was a strong ally in the fight against illegal marijuana grows, which led to the Klamath National Forest reclaiming 100% of all known illegal grow sites across the forest last summer,” according to KNF. “Ice was a colleague, but also a friend to many on the forest and in the local community. He will be deeply missed.”