Wolf Miscellany

I think there is an unstated human obsession with wolves, perhaps because they contain in essence both the genes of our species’ best animal friend, and the age -old simultaneous rep as humankind’s most visible enemy. Here are a few recent instances.

I have always heard the some of the big Central Asian flock protection dogs are interbred with wolves. As wolves are among their chief adversaries, and the phenotype is so different, I never took the myth too seriously. I was wrong– apparently there is a surprising amount of fraternizing. One of the scientists involved puts it just that way: “”The shepherd dogs are free-ranging, largely outside the tight control
of their human masters. They guard the herds from wolves, which are
common in the areas where they are used, but it appears that they are
also consorting with the enemy.”

The implications of this, in such areas as nature vs nurture, are enormous. Obviously genes aren’t all, or the offspring would not be useful. Training and loyalty must come in somewhere.

John Wilson participated in a “round- up” of some of the breeding Mexican wolves held at the Sevilleta, where they needed to capture a pair to send to Mexico. I was happy to see they are really being kept in isolation these days, having seen evidence of the contrary a few years back– letting in television news helicopter crews for a shoot is not isolation! Also interesting was how passive and shy the wolves are, offering no resistance. The workers formed a line and swept down the hill to where the den boxes are; the wolves retreated to the boxes; the volunteers then opened the den, pinned the wolves, trussed them, drugged them and carried them out. No one, human or wolf, was injured.

Some notes from John (odd format is from his notes):

Rena’s Contributions

It’s been nearly two months since Rena tangled with wolves while protecting our sheep herd in the foothills of the southern Wind River Mountains. She has recovered nicely – no major muscle loss, but some stiffness in her hind end remains, and we suspect that won’t change. The sheep herd has moved home for the winter, and Rena is happily back on guardian duty, but tires easily. We’re hopeful for a quiet winter.

The essay I posted here on Q about the weekend of the wolf attacks on our herd has been widely read, and I’m pleased to say that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe was one of those readers. Ashe quoted some of the essay at a carnivore conservation conference at Yale this week, and showed the crowd a photo of wounded Rena. His point in doing so was to urge those present “to think about the people who must share the landscape with these species. We need their support, their understanding and their forbearance if we want to see large carnivores roaming free.

“We must seek solutions that work for them, as well as for the species we manage. To do otherwise will perpetuate the conflict and make it harder for carnivores to gain acceptance.

“Compassion and empathy. That’s the key.” Amen to that, Mr. Ashe. Thanks for spreading the word.

Rena’s responsibilities have increased now that she’s healed up and her sheep are home. Her 9-year old mother, Luv’s Girl, gave birth to four pups in early October, so she’s on maternity leave. Luv’s Girl will race out to join Rena in reacting to a perceived threat, but she isn’t actively patrolling since she’s too busy tending to her pups. We’re night penning the sheep to give the dogs a break, but Rena stays double-busy checking the herd, and then checking her mother with the new puppies in their natal den. We’ll keep one of the pups to raise in our herd, and send the others out to other livestock producers who need working dogs. I think we can say with confidence that this lineage is wolf- and bear-tested.

The Land Of My Soul

It was a crisp 16 degrees when we set out, the headlights of the truck shining on the black ice coating the roadway, with the soft fog buffering the white glare of the freshly fallen snow blanketing the landscape. It was slow going pulling the empty stock trailer so it wouldn’t fishtail on the slick pavement, but an hour later, we turned off the highway onto a dirt flat overlooking the Big Sandy River, and were quickly swallowed into the frenzy of activity in the first morning light.

A set of portable pens the size of a basketball court had been erected the day before, and sat empty in preparation for the work ahead. A variety of muddy pickup trucks and stock trailers were parked nearby, out of the way of the semi tractor-trailers lined up to begin loading. Emerging from these vehicles or sitting astride horses were more than a dozen people of various nationalities – sheep herders from Ecuador, Nepal, Peru, and Mexico – Basque sheepman, truck drivers and a lamb buyer from neighboring Idaho, a local veterinarian, and state brand inspector. It was shipping day, time to ship the year’s lamb crop to market. Rain and snow in the few days prior had prohibited us from sorting the sheep beforehand, so the herds had been combined and would come into the corral in one large bunch, with the sorting to occur at a series of gates off the alleyway leading to the loading chute. The sheep would enter the alleyway, with two sorting gates allowing older cull ewes to be separated into a second pen, and our herd to be cut into a third, with the main ewe herd proceeding down the alleyway and back out into the sagebrush, while market lambs would take a right turn and head up the loading chute into the waiting semis.

We waited in the cool morning air, shaking hands and visiting among the group, and petting the herding dogs when they approached in greeting, while the herders went to retrieve the herd. The dim morning light struggled to peek through the heavy overcast skies, but when the bunch of 8,000 head of ewes and lambs crested the ridge to the east and began flowing down the hillside, the sight was breathtakingly beautiful. Each of the sheep combined with the others so the herd seemed as one fluid movement, covering the landscape between the pens and the ridge in graceful unison, with their thousands of hooves making only a muted muffle as they shuffled through the snow. There were nearly two dozen guardian dogs amid the herd and around it in every direction – soldiers on the move, prepared for battle. Five of the guardians stayed ahead, scouting for danger as the herd moved forward. As the herd came closer, herders joined in on foot or horseback to continue to propel the flock in its forward movement.

The herd came to a halt just before the entrance to the pens, with the lead sheep pausing, heads up and erect, inspecting the layout before being escorted in by their canine guardians. The herd surged and moved through the open gate as a wave of water over a riffle, filling the pen in a matter of minutes.

The men stationed themselves from the loading chute, along the gates and alleyway, and throughout the large pen to keep the herd always moving forward. They laughed, hollered, whistled, cussed, and told stories, working hard all the while. They would work from dawn to nearly darkness, coming and going as duties demanded.

As they worked, I took photos and greeted many of the guardian and herding dogs that came through. I could only spend a few hours at the pens before I had to hit the road for a previous commitment on the other side of the state. As I turned to leave, I decided to take one last walk around the outside of the herd. I called “hey girls, morning girls,” as I walked, and as I made the last turn of the curved pen, a distinct voice arose from that of the others. I looked in that direction and was thrilled to see Assistant Sheep, the lead sheep of our small herd, as she raced to the fence to greet me, raising her nose to mine as we touched heads in greeting.

When the semis were filled, a caravan of trucks would backtrack 15 miles south, to weigh the trucks on a certified scale. The weighs would be calculated with the negotiated sales price agreed to weeks before, and a telephone call would have the money wired from the buyer’s account to the seller’s before the trucks would be allowed to leave. The veterinarian had looked over the entire loading process, as had the brand inspector, and they leaned on the hoods of their trucks doing paperwork to certify the health of the animals and transfer ownership.

By the time I drove back through the rangeland, darkness hid its wonders, but I knew that under that starry sky, herds were bedded with their guardians and herders, waiting for that first light to begin making their way south to the desert for winter grazing. And as I turned my truck into our driveway, I turned the wheel so the headlights swung across the pen below the house, where I could see my sleeping herd, resting from their day’s journey home.

Those who know me well know I call this sagebrush rangeland the land of my soul. Today my soul was nourished, and my heart was filled by the simple beauty of these animals and humans who share their lives in this great land.

Big dogs of Lesotho

It’s taken me forever to sort photos from our Lesotho/South Africa trip, but now I’m going to flood the blog with images of dogs we met along the way.

These are the bigger dogs or livestock guardian type dogs that we met in Lesotho. The primary predators in Lesotho are jackals, but these dogs have also been exported to other African countries for use against caracals, hyenas, cheetahs, and even lions.

The following image is of a traditional Maluti guardian dog taken from Lesotho and now housed in a private kennel in South Africa. This young male is a two-year old.

Of Livestock, Predators, & Guardians

This summer, our sheep have been grazing a series of private pastures in the foothills of the southern Wind River Mountains – pastures that have been used by domestic sheep herds for more than 100 years. This small herd is protected by the three burros that are always present, and by livestock guardian dogs. The range here is fluid and complex, with thousands of sheep and their guardian dogs coming and going, as well as the shepherds that accompany them. The sheep herds carry the same genetics, and I’ve raised many of the dogs that use this rangeland that covers many square miles, some of which is divided into pastures, while others are allotments that include public land.

Last weekend, there were about 1,000 sheep grazing in about a two-mile area, with at least six livestock guardian dogs. The sheep may spread out to graze during the day, but bunch up together to bed at night. Where each dog was located with what bunch of sheep at any given time is fluid. We’ve had a lot of bear activity, and the dogs have done a fantastic job of keeping the bears out of the sheep in this area.

One night last month, when a bear got into a nearby cattle herd, two of the dogs from my bunch raced to the rescue, as did another guardian dog that came from the south. The two dogs returned to my bunch within about 45 minutes, and the other dog returned to the south. Rena (a five-year old Akbash female) had stayed with my sheep – the only reason I know this much is because I was sleeping on the ground next to the herd that night. I had believed that if we had problems in the sheep, it would probably be with wolves. When both black bear tracks and grizzly bear tracks were found the next morning, I gave up sleeping under the stars, and started using a tent as a more visible sign of human presence. The only wolf tracks that were found were old, but it quickly became evident that bears were a constant presence. Two particularly enthusiastic dogs (Luv’s Girl and Tigger) are excellent at hazing bears away.

Back to last weekend: Saturday morning, there was a combination of Akbash and Central Asian Ovcharka dogs guarding the herds, which were divided into two pastures, with the sheep bedded close to each other, but with a fence line between two main bunches. Some of the dogs were back and forth on patrol, and others stayed inside the flocks. I don’t know what happened Saturday night, since I wasn’t there and the herder camped on the hill to the south couldn’t see anything in the dark. They next day, we found dead sheep, and walking wounded sheep that had to later be put down. One dog was missing, but later returned. The big herd in the adjacent pasture had been moved into the next allotment (still abutting my bunch), and we made plans to move Monday morning since there wasn’t enough time on Sunday to do all that needed to be done. We checked all the sheep and hiked around both inside and outside the pasture, trying to find all the dead sheep, looking for tracks, and covering up some of the carcasses lest they be destroyed by ravens or other scavengers. In total, there were nine dead sheep (two 90-pound lambs and 7 adult ewes weighing about 175-200 pounds each). I notified federal wildlife officials that we had a problem and needed an on-the-ground assessment. That would happen at first light on Monday.

Jim had to work on Monday, so we raced back to the house to drop him off, and I threw my gear in the truck and went back to the herd. Hud the herding dog helped me bunch the sheep and drop them in a corner of the pasture where I would hold them all night. I stayed outside with Hud, sitting on the ground nearby in a soft drizzling rain, until after dark. I parked my truck about 100 yards from the herd, and slept in the cab with Hud, with the window down so I could hear and check the herd through the night. The last I saw that night with my spotlight was Rena patrolling from the truck toward the far end of the pasture where the kills had happened the night before. I knew the burros were on that end as well, but couldn’t see that far with my spotlight. I could see Luv’s Girl (Rena’s nine-year old mother) sleeping with the herd in front of me. It was very dark, with the drizzle from the rain and the clouds completely hiding the crescent moon that was finally visible a few hours before sunrise. There were a few ruckuses during the night, and I could hear guardian dogs barking in various directions at infrequent intervals. Only once during the night did I see the sheep stand up from their beds, but Luv’s Girl was still visible in front of them. They settled down and I went back to sleep. About 4 a.m., I kicked Hud out of the cab of the truck, and found Rena sleeping on her side next to the truck, with fresh blood on her tail. I talked to her and she responded, but quickly went back to sleep. I spotlighted the sleeping herd, with Luv’s Girl still present, and waited for daylight.

When darkness started easing, I could hear the neighboring sheep herd as the animals started rising from the hillside to the south and I saw two Ovcharka guardians between that herd and my bunch, as well as Luv’s Girl still bedded with my herd, and Rena next to the truck. When I saw a pickup truck driving in, I went to meet it, and within minutes, a federal animal damage control airplane flew in, breaking through the morning fog, shooting two wolves as they fled to the east. From her wounds, we know that Rena had tangled with a wolf or wolves during the night, but the wolves never made it to our herd because of her efforts. I don’t know how many other dogs or wolves were involved, since I didn’t see the confrontation. We also don’t know what role, if any, the burros played.

When Rena tried to stand and walk, she labored to work her hind end. I found two major bite marks – one near her spine and the other on her tail, both deep punctures through her long hair and undercoat. I never tried to assess further damage, but backed the truck up to the ditch so she could load up, with me helping to lift her back end, her crying when I lifted her. She collapsed in the bed of the truck, into an exhausted, wounded sleep.

There was a flurry of activity from that point, much of it involving other people coming to the rescue while I turned my attention to Rena and getting her to the vet clinic an hour away – my herd was moved to the south, and the carcasses picked up while I was driving to Pinedale. There would be at least two other large range herds exiting the mountains in the next few days (each herd with up to 11 guardian dogs), and they had been slated to rest and transition in these private pastures for a few days before they would begin trailing to the south. The plans were changed to speed the herds through this area. I learned that another guard dog was brought off the mountain with his throat slashed by a predator. He’s not expected to live.

By the time we got to town, Rena was unable to get up on her own. I climbed into the back of the truck and lifted her onto the gurney, with the help of two other women. Rena was very sweet about it all, as she was strapped down and rolled inside the vet clinic. The clinic staff let me stick around for a few minutes to comfort Rena, as they checked her vitals and began preparing a plan of action. First would be fluids and sedation before they would shave her to find the damage underneath.

When I returned to see Rena in the late afternoon, she was still groggy from sedation, but her numerous wounds had been cleaned and stapled. She wagged her tail at me, which gave me hope that she’ll pull through. The vet clinic staff said that the tags on her hind end had probably saved her life. Much hair had been pulled out, but cushioned the bites. On Tuesday afternoon, the clinic released Rena to come home, where I could help keep her wounds open and draining, and feed her painkillers and antibiotics. She’s not out of danger, since the greatest threat is infection.

As I’ve said before, when large carnivores and livestock share the same range, some animals will be killed – some wild, some domestic. It happens across western rangelands routinely. It is not pleasant, but it is reality. There’s no compensation for our recent losses, or our vet bill, and our priority is always to stop the depredations. You won’t hear our family calling for eradication of any species, but you will hear us advocate that dangerous predators be killed when there are conflicts, and we do support sport hunting as a wildlife management tool. We share the range with many other species. We share.

This is really only a story because rather than it being some ranch that you don’t know, you do know our family, and some of the animals involved. Rena is famous because she was the runt of a litter of Akbash pups that was featured in my children’s book, The Guardian Team: On the Job with Rena and Roo, and in my adult book, Shepherds of Coyote Rocks: Public Lands, Private Herds and the Natural World. Thousands of Wyoming children have met her through school and library programs. Many of you have seen pictures of our sheep, burros and dogs through my Facebook posts over the last few years.

Some readers will want a more satisfying conclusion to this story – something that tidies up all the loose ends – but I can’t give it to you. This is not an automated system, with predicted events and outcomes. There is no magical number or breed of dogs, or combinations of breed, age or sex, or set acreage, or fence design, or terrain, that allows a livestock producer to follow a formula to safeguard their herds from predation. I can’t tell you how many black bears, grizzly bears, and wolves are in the area, let alone how many of these animals the guardian dogs come into contact with. This is a fluid system, with livestock, predators and guardians sharing rangeland at random times and spaces, sometimes in conflict, but with varied outcomes. It’s never perfect, but it works really well most of the time.

What I do ask is for more compassion for fellow humans. The blame for the recent sheep deaths, dead wolves, and Rena’s injuries is directly on me, since it is my responsibility as a shepherd to protect my flock. But don’t expect me to take any crap from someone not working alongside me to minimize conflicts on the ground. Further polarization of those passionate about ridding the rangelands of something (either wolves or domestic livestock) does no one any good.

I am thankful for those who offer understanding to others involved in difficult situations, well wishes for the critters we share this earth with, and hope that peaceful days outnumber all others.

Range Sheep & Big Predators

I am weary of the snide, ignorant, and vicious comments made in response to last week’s death of 176 sheep due to a wolf attack in eastern Idaho (see stories here and here). Some of the sheep were directly bitten and killed, but the majority of the animals were killed in a stampeding pileup as they tried a hillside escape.

Range sheep are not stupid or defenseless animals. Our cull ewes weigh about 175 pounds, and will turn on a dog or coyote and try to stomp it into the dirt.

They flock closely together as a defense mechanism against predators. In response to a predator, they will bunch up, and flee in panic. A herd that has already sustained attack has high stress levels, and will remain nervous and flighty. Flee response is similar in many other ruminants and ungulates – everything from pronghorn antelope to domestic horses have the same response. We know that herds persecuted by predators sometimes experience ill health, even if those animals aren’t directly bitten. They suffer weight loss, and may abort their lambs if they are pregnant.

Deadly pile-ups aren’t unheard of. In a winter storm, the sheep will try to drift, and if they encounter a fence, they may pile up and die. It’s similar to what happened in that famous antelope die off with the Red Rim fence. But a panicked stampede in response to extreme danger isn’t unheard of in other species either – it happens with humans as well, with people trampling other people to death in attempt to escape. There are cases of mass trampling deaths around the globe, from walruses to wildebeest.

Range sheep are hardy animals that give birth to lambs in early spring snow storms, and those babies get on their feet to nurse, and thrive from there. They have much of the same life cycle as the pronghorn antelope they share the same range with.

Some have demanded to know where the herders and guard dogs were during the Idaho attack. It’s worth noting that three of this ranch’s guardian dogs had already been killed by this pack of wolves during this grazing season.

Do you expect the herders to hear a ruckus in the night, go outside and be able to ascertain what is happening in the dark? It might be plausible at the ranch homestead where there is outside lighting, but in a camp on the range, it’s not. A herder in the Bridger-Teton National Forest tried to do just that a few years ago, and he was mauled by a grizzly bear. Some faulted the herder for going out to find out why the dogs were in an uproar.

Montana rancher John Shuler got up one night to see what was causing the ruckus he was hearing from his sheep pens at his home and found three grizzly bears killing his penned sheep. When one of the grizzlies turned to him, rising on its hind feet and roaring, Shuler shot it. He was charged with a federal offense, with the judge faulting him for placing himself in danger, stating that he should have stayed in his house that night. It took nearly a decade for Shuler to be cleared of the charges.

As I write this, I am sleeping in a tent alongside my own sheep herd as it grazes private pastures near the Wind River Mountains. We’ve had bear incidents in two of the last four nights. The first incident involved a bear coming into the pasture, only to be confronted by the guardian dogs, which then chased the dark blur up the fence line and past me as they chased the bear back up the draw and deeper into the mountains.

The second incident involved the dogs chasing a bear from the nearby cattle herd. I was concerned about both the sheep and dogs, so I walked around in the dark, using a headlamp and carrying a firearm, as I checked the herd and inspected the dogs upon their return. Had I been mauled or bitten by a predator, some would have faulted me, staying I should have waited for daylight. At the time, I didn’t know what species of predator was involved in the night’s chaos.

My point is that while it is easy to sit back and pass judgment on others about what they should have, or should not have, done in a moment of crisis, it’s generally not helpful and is really only self-serving. What is the right thing to do isn’t always clear at all. There is no consensus about what herders should do in response to predation at night, but it’s best to err on the side of human safety – no amount of dead livestock is worth a human life. Some herders don’t carry firearms, and some aren’t proficient with them anyway, even if they could pick out a predator in the dark.

We as humans try to do the best we can, and different people will respond differently. I simply advocate more compassion for fellow humans. I do also recognize that the nasty comments about the Idaho sheep pile up probably have little to do with what actually happened. Instead, it’s about the ongoing polarization of those still bickering over wolves, predator control, and over public lands livestock grazing.

We who tend to herds in large carnivore country have our own opinions on those issues as well, but those views take a back seat to our actions on the ground. Day by day, we take action to protect both ourselves and our herds, but always work with the knowledge that when large carnivores and livestock share the same range, some livestock will die, as will some predators. It’s not a perfect situation, but it is reality.