By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A dog buried for four days by an avalanche that killed its Montana owner was hungry but otherwise unscathed when it was found outside a motel room the man had rented, authorities said.
In a tale of survival that avalanche experts described on Thursday as remarkable, "Ole," a Welsh corgi, was able to free itself from feet-deep layers of snow that on Saturday barreled down a Wyoming mountainside and killed Dave Gaillard, 44, of Bozeman, Montana.
"We don't have a lot of data on dogs and avalanches. What we do know is that humans very, very, very rarely survive such a long burial," Mark Staples, avalanche specialist for the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in Montana, said on Thursday.
Gaillard, his wife and Ole were backcountry skiing on Saturday afternoon in the mountains along the Montana-Wyoming border near Yellowstone National Park when they inadvertently triggered the slide that buried both man and dog.
Gaillard's wife, Kerry, narrowly escaped the rapidly advancing wall of snow by grabbing hold of a tree, according to an accident report by the avalanche center. She later searched for hours for Gaillard before skiing on to alert authorities.
Gaillard, a wildlife conservationist and experienced alpine outdoorsman, was later found dead. Rescue crews reported no sign of the dog, which was presumed killed.
But Robert Weinstein, manager of the Alpine Motel in Cooke City, spotted the corgi on Wednesday lying before the door of the room where the Gaillards had stayed.
"You knew right away it was their dog but you doubted it. It was too incredible," Weinstein told Reuters on Thursday, saying the dog was hungry but appeared unharmed.
"It's a miracle," he said.
Weinstein said he and the 50-plus other full-time residents of the historic mining town were puzzling over how a dog with diminutive legs dug out and marched four miles to the motel across rugged terrain blanketed with 60 inches of snow.
"It shows what they're capable of if they're driven to do it," Weinstein said.
Ole was delivered to Gaillard's family in Bozeman on Wednesday night as the family mourned a man cited as a beloved husband, father and colleague with Defenders of Wildlife.
Gaillard's four-year tenure in the nonprofit's Northern Rockies office in Bozeman centered on elusive animals of the high elevations, including imperiled carnivores like Canada lynx and wolverines.
"Dave's passing is a great loss for the conservation community," Defenders said in a statement.
Gaillard was one of two avalanche fatalities recorded on Saturday along the Montana-Wyoming border. Jody Ray Verhasselt, 46, of Sidney, Montana, was snowmobiling when he accidentally caused a slide near Cooke City that killed him.
Staples said a weekend snowstorm that brought high winds had significantly raised the risk of avalanches, prompting widespread warnings in the region where the slides happened.
Avalanches have claimed the lives of three people near southwest Montana so far this season, he said, compared to a single slide-caused death last season.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)