Guard dog management addressedWritten by Jennifer Womack
Casper — “If we work together and we are proactive we can help keep the livestock protection dog on the clock,” said Michael Marlow, a wildlife biologist with the USDA’s Wildlife Service division.
Marlow’s position within the USDA, aimed at bridging the gap between ongoing predator research and livestock producers, is fairly new. He was a speaker at the early December Profitability Conference, an educational symposium held in conjunction with the joint winter meeting of the Wyoming Wool Growers and the Wyoming Stock Growers associations. “Early on I was approached by the American Sheep Industry Association on the issue of livestock protection dogs,” said Marlow.
The request came in the wake of a high-profile conflict between a recreationist on public land and a livestock guard dog. Beyond calling on Marlow, the national organization formed an industry working group to address the issue to ensure measures are carried out to protect the long-term presence of the industry’s ability to use livestock guard dogs.
“In the late 1970s,” said Marlow, “a resurgence in livestock dogs for sheep protection came about.” The increase arrived at the same time several predator control methods were outlawed.
“Many people were having trouble with existing techniques providing adequate relief from predation,” said Marlow. He also said there was an increased desire on the part of ranchers to establish non-lethal methods of control.
“This was 40 years ago,” he said. “Where are we now?”
“Lethal methods are continually under fire,” said Marlow. “In some cases states have eliminated the ability to use lethal methods.” In the wake of such decisions, the ability to utilize livestock guard dogs has become increasingly important.
“We’re seeing more conflicts,” said Marlow noting barking, attacks on domestic pets and a few cases where people and dogs have had troubles on federal lands. Southwestern Wyoming rancher Bill Taliaferro said Wyoming hasn’t been immune to issues with guard dogs. He said the Rock Springs Grazing Association has wrestled with the issue on a couple of different scenarios.
Marlow said efforts to make a proactive difference have been focused in three key areas — education, producer responsibility and research. In the area of education Marlow has been working with the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to distribute information on guard dogs to those who utilize public lands for recreational purposes. Marlow said the goal is to “make them aware of livestock protection dogs.” They need to know how they should react if they come across sheep or guard dogs.
Producer responsibility is also being addressed through creation of Best Management Practices. “The old cliché is ‘one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel,’” said Marlow. “It’s the responsibility of producers to not produce a dog that affects the industry in a negative way.”
Marlow said, “It’s the producer’s responsibility to be familiar with state and local laws and ordinances that may be encountered.” He also said they need to be aware of their liability and ensure their dogs have proper vaccinations, such as rabies shots. It’s also imperative that the dogs be identified in multiple ways and the vaccination records readily accessible.
Marlow said a producer certification program is being considered. Producers who complete the program would receive special training and recognition for their efforts. Such a measure could also reduce their level of liability if their dog bites someone on public lands.
Research is also ongoing in the area of predator management. Wolves weren’t part of the picture in the 1970s when dogs came back on the scene on a larger scale. Marlow said research is exploring whether guard dogs might be attracting wolves into flocks. “Are they coming in to prey upon sheep or does he come to protect his territory?” asked Marlow. “This is something that needs to be researched.”
Dog aggression is also being considered. “Can we have a more aggressive dog and still maintain the use of dogs on public lands?” asked Marlow. “That’s probably not the best answer.” On the flip side of the coin he said, “We don’t want a dog so friendly that he doesn’t fulfill his role of predator defense. We need a dog more socially accepting to humans and still effective for predator deterrence.”
He also said they’re looking at items to protect dogs from wolves such as protective vests and collars.
“We’re on the right track to make a strong stance,” said Marlow of efforts to provide educational material, enhance producer responsibility and reduce liability.