Producers explore guard dog options for large carnivores
As wolf and grizzly bear populations increase, the amount of protection necessary for livestock exposed to those species also increases. Utilizing livestock protection dogs (LPDs) is one method Jim and Cat Urbigkit strongly recommend.
“LPDs in the United States have helped protect livestock herds from certain predators, but expanding large-carnivore populations pose new challenges... Agricultural producers in the western United States have the highest reported economic losses due to wildlife damage,” states a review the Urbigkits co-authored titled “The Use of Livestock Protection Dogs in Association with Large Carnivores in the Rocky Mountains.”
To reduce losses Jim suggests the use of dogs specifically bred to protect against wolves, most of which are found in Europe and Central Asia. The list doesn’t include the Pyrenees or the Akbash-two common U.S. breeds.
“The Pyrenees generally aren’t mean enough to kill a coyote. They will stay between the threat and the herd and sacrifice their life, but they won’t engage. The Akbash might just be too intelligent. They won’t engage in a fight unless they know they can win,” explains Jim.
One recommended breed is the Central Asian Ovcharkas, which the Urbigkits written review describes as being believed to be one of the oldest breeds of dogs on Earth. An adult male can be over 30 inches tall and weigh over 175 pounds. For centuries these dogs were bred to fit the nomadic lifestyle of Central Asian herders. Any dog that showed aggression to humans was eliminated, which Jim notes would make them a good fit on public lands.
The Karakachen Dog is another breed the Urbigkits recommend that originated in Bulgaria by nomads.
“After World War II, nationalization of land in Bulgaria began, with nomads forced into villages. Many dogs were killed. Official recognition of the Karakachan as a breed under Bulgarian law did not occur until 2005,” states the review.
Jim explains that in 1996 a program was developed to preserve the dog with the basis that the survival of the guardian depends on the survival of the predator and vice versa.
“They believe you can’t maintain the character of the dog without challenging it with wolves, but without the wolf there would be no need for the dog,” notes Jim.
While some foreign breeds of LPDs are currently raised in the U.S., others are still somewhat rare in their own country, making them expensive to acquire.
“Initially it will be expensive to get these dogs into the U.S. when you add transportation costs on top of the purchase price. We recently bought some Central Asian dogs from Pennsylvania and to get four puppies to Wyoming costs $1,000 just in shipping. That was just from the eastern U.S.,” says Jim.
He and Cat are planning to attend an international conference in Sophia, Bulgaria this September where the primary focus will be LPDs.
“We’re hoping to meet and talk with people and will be traveling to livestock operations that use LPDs. We’ll see what we can learn from people who have used these dogs against wolves and brown bears successfully for thousands of years. They have so much more experience than we do in the U.S.
“We are hoping to make contact with breeders and people who know where to obtain dogs and get importation established through those initial contacts,” explains Jim.
Of using guard dogs Jim notes that a lot of environmentalists like the idea because they are considered a non-lethal method of control. Fish and Wildlife Services also considers LPDs as non-lethal control.
“An old dog in Colorado bit a bicyclist about a year ago and that is the most serious threat to the use of LPDs on Forest Service land. As an industry we are advocating best management practices (BMPs) to eliminate those issues. However, we believe the currently proposed BMPs are unworkable and were written by people who have not used guard dogs where there are wolves,” says Jim.
He adds that by trying to provide an active response to guard dogs threatening people some of the proposed BMPs will adversely affect the usefulness of dogs.
“One problem is they want all male dogs neutered. We don’t believe neutered dogs are effective against wolves at all based on literature from Turkey and Central Asia. Neutered dogs won’t fight.
“Another proposed BMP states that a dog must be within sight of livestock and come when called and be easy to catch. If a dog doesn’t actively chase a predator at least a mile from the herd the predator will immediately return in most cases. But, if a dog pursues the predator over a mile he generally won’t return. Dogs that come when called are being stolen in western forests.
“It’s a fine line, having a dog you can coax in for vet care or to move is good, but having one that is too friendly or easily caught results in him disappearing too often,” explains Jim.
He feels a more realistic solution to dog/human conflicts can be found through selecting the proper breed rather than implementing bureaucratic regulations.
A mix of breeds may prove most effective as each breed protects in different ways. While those dogs bred to protect against both predators and humans wouldn’t be a good fit on public lands, Jim notes that combining the skills of multiple breeds can increase LPD effectiveness.
“For example, the Pyrenees will stay with the sheep, the Akbash will patrol a large area around the herd and the Anatolian or Kengal might actively hunt coyotes. Having multiple breeds equals having multiple functions in predator control,” he adds.
Of using LPDs Jim says he would like to see them become a common fixture on ranches in the west.
“Not only do these dogs provide protection for livestock, but they also protect people. There is an increasing number of problems with aggressive bears and mountain lions and people. Guard dogs provide another level of protection. They can also be used to keep big game off ranches. You’re less likely to run into a moose in your backyard if you have a guard dog,” says Jim.