Many Q readers are familiar with my family’s varied efforts to keep large carnivores from preying on our domestic sheep, and of my firm belief that we wouldn’t be in the sheep business without the use of livestock protection dogs.
This time I’m going to share a story of the efforts of family friends, the Thomans, and what their situation is like every summer as they graze three domestic sheep flocks in the Upper Green River region of the Bridger-Teton National Forest north of Pinedale, Wyoming. The late Bill Thoman is the reason I’m in the sheep business – he introduced me to orphan lambs, and my ewe herd originated on his ranch. Bill died in a tragic accident a few years ago, and now it’s the Thoman women who run the ranch full time – a big western range cattle and sheep operation. That’s my friend Mary Thoman riding the range in the Upper Green, with sheep in the background, in the photo above.
At the same time Jim and I received grant funding from the Wyoming Animal Damage Management Board for our international research project on Old World guardian dogs last year, the Thoman ranches received funding to install electric fences as portable night pens on their mountain grazing allotments.
Installation of the night pens last summer allowed for the sheep and sheepherders to be protected, while reducing the number of grizzly bears removed from the area due to conflict.
Mary said the project was a success, letting sheep rest at night. The result was that her family’s four-month old lambs came off the mountain at a record weight of 96 pounds. She reported that the herds were calm after resting all night instead of running from predators as had been the case the last few years with increased grizzly bear and gray wolf populations on the allotments.
The Thoman family has grazed four allotments in the Elk Ridge Complex in the Upper Green for 34 years, and has experienced increased conflicts with large carnivores in recent years. The ranch places three herds of about 1,000-head of sheep, on the allotments for grazing from July through September each year, leaving one allotment to rest annually.
One of the allotments was frequented by 12 grizzly bears and four black bears in 2010, and two black bears were removed by wildlife managers in response to depredations. A second herd was harassed by two grizzly bear sows and their cubs, and two wolves, with one grizzly bear removed by state officials. A third sheep herd had two or three grizzly bears, six wolves, and a mountain lion around it all summer. The sheep were safe at night, but these big predators were successful in preying on the herds in daylight hours.
“The major killing occurred during the daytime when small groups of sheep were run up into the timber or rocks and then killed,” she reported.
Here’s a photo of a trap used to live capture bears, parked outside the night pen.
State and federal wildlife managers and animal damage experts were on the scene to help minimize livestock losses and document problems, but losses to predators were substantial again in 2010. Mary said that the losses would have been “astronomical” without the use of the night pens.
In 2010, predators killed 259 ewes and 186 lambs, with a total value of about $65,000. The Thomans received nearly $54,000 in damage compensation by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, with the ranch forced to absorb the remaining $11,000 loss on its own.
Livestock losses due to large carnivores on the allotments have increased steadily in recent years, with damage ranging from about $17,000 in 2005, to $40,000 in 2008, and 2010’s $65,000. Mary said that while the ranch had made adjustments to try to control losses, the arrival of female grizzlies with cubs resulted in a doubling of livestock losses.
One night in late September, a female grizzly and her cub attempted to dig underneath the electric fence to get to the sheep inside, but failed. The trench left by the digging bruins was an impressive sight.
“With the nightly use of pens, the herders were able to secure the three herds at night and did not have to jeopardize their lives to check on sheep that may have been attacked by bears or wolves,” Mary said.
One of the Thoman’s sheepherders was mauled by a grizzly bear during the 2009 grazing season when he stepped away from his tent to check on a barking livestock protection dog.
While the night pens were deemed a success, not all deterrents worked as well. Herders on one allotment used a large spotlight on the back of their tent to discourage grizzly bears, while another used a small electric pen around his sleeping tent. Herders using an air horn to scare bears away found it worked to deter black bears, but actually attracted the curiosity of grizzlies. Flashlights had no deterrent effects at all. Herders had to be moved out of their tent and into a sheep wagon until electric pens could be set up around their campsites once a grizzly threatened to enter the herder camp.
Herders stay in these hard-sided camps as much as possible, but when the herds are moved too deep into the backcountry, or into the wilderness, they sleep in tents.
On another occasion, a sow grizzly and her cub became entangled in the electric fence around a herd, gaining entrance and killing about 20 sheep. Thoman fears a repeat performance from this sow: “This bear may acclimate to swatting the pen, as this was the second attempt she made at entering the pen.”
The Thomans use a variety of deterrents, from a half-dozen livestock protection dogs with each herd, to bear-proof containers utilized for storage of food and supplies.
Here’s a photo of one of the storage boxes for dog food, followed by a bear-resistant shed for larger items.
Herders working for the Thoman ranch do not carry firearms, but are supplied with pepper spray. The herders receive training in safety and in food storage requirements.
The Thomans use livestock protection dogs that have proven to be very effective against male grizzlies, but have limited effectiveness with bear family groups, and with wolves. Wolves killed four of the Thoman guardian dogs in 2004.
Mary’s family’s expenses and presence on the allotment has increased four-fold during the last few years due to increased predator presence.
Despite the large carnivore conflicts, the Thomans maintain that these four allotments are some of the best in America, producing fat lambs averaging 90 pounds at 120 days of age, in a manner that maintains a pristine environment. Mary fears that multiple use management is falling by the wayside on the allotments, with the Endangered Species Act driving management, and inflexible U.S. Forest Service regulations and officials putting the squeeze on her family’s future on the allotments.
Mary said her family either needs to see an increase in agency cooperation, or she might end up seeking an allotment buy-out to end her family’s grazing tradition. My community, as well as these mountains the sheep graze, would feel that loss and I hope it doesn’t happen. I’d like to see Mary’s family continue domestic sheep use on the western range for many years to come.
This is ranch matriarch Mickey Thoman with daughter Mary Thoman.