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.

Ranch Life

Jim and I had a little time to kill on our friend Pete’s ranch today when we went to pick up our rams. I thought Q readers might enjoy a quick tour. The photo above provides the setting – a western Wyoming ranch, at the foothills of the Wind River Mountains.

Livestock guardian puppies awaken from their nap, while a one-day old kid goat naps nearby.

Guardian dog body language and attitude is demonstrated at an early age. This little goat was very well guarded.

This is the bonding pen. A group of rams inhabits the pen with the adolescent guardians and teaches the young dogs to always be good to sheep.

These are six-month old Central Asian Ovcharka/Akbash pups.

The ranch uses plenty of horse power, and almost exclusively draft horse – not saddle stock. Besides being the mode of transport for the herders, these horses pull wagons and feed the cattle.

A good-looking group of gentle giants.

Accidental addition

We fell into a new adventure today. Jim and I went out to feed the dogs and check the sheep. We’d just settled all the adult dogs in with separate piles or bowls of food and decided to take a few treats to the burros, which we’re in the middle of the herd, in the meadow. When we started into the meadow, we saw a small animal just above the sheep, on the ditch bank. I thought it was a small dog, perhaps a herding dog that was following one of the ranch hands as he irrigated. The animal looked at us briefly before dropping out of sight.

While I visited with the burros, Jim and Hud walked across the meadow and to the ditch bank. Within about a minute I saw Jim turn back toward me with a small animal tucked into the crook of his arm. I asked, “What is that?” to which he replied, “Your new dog.”

When I walked up to meet the tired little pup, he wagged his tail, seeming to know me at a first look. Yup, he was mine.

One of the female guardians had given birth to a litter of pups at the ranch, but during the day she sometimes comes out to my herd and joins in guardian duties. At some unknown point in time, this small pup had apparently walked in the dry irrigation ditch for more than a mile before finding my herd. He’d been lost from his mother and litter mates for days, and was skinny and weak at this point. Jim got the pup to drink some water before we got in the truck to turn for home, and then fed him a little dry dog food since we had some on hand in the truck.

Since Pete and I share guardian dogs at various times, and since we are close friends and business partners, I knew he would not be surprised that we decided to take the rescued pup home to get him on the mend instead of returning him to his litter mates. This just seemed meant to be. I know both the pup’s parents, and have decided that since he’s such a tiny, weak thing, we’ll give him a name to live up to.
Meet Khan:

Khan may be small, but he really loves the sheep. We’ve moved him into the kennel with two bum lambs at the house.

For that, Hud is thankful. When Khan was in the house getting pampered this afternoon, Hud was not happy.

It will be a pleasure to watch this tough, independent-minded guardian grow to be a protective defender of the herd.

Spring silliness


Warm temperatures have been welcome, but our snow cover is long gone, and the resulting mud has dried. The animals seem to be enjoying the spring weather. In the photo above, Rena greets Buck, a bum lamb raised by a little girl who recently moved to Oklahoma, so Buck returned to the herd.

Rena is very kind to young animals, and yesterday afternoon, flopped over on her side to let Hud the herding dog beat her up – he was thrilled. Notice the lambs and herd standing nearby.

Herding sheep, and words

It’s been such a long time since I’ve posted, and I have missed the blog much in the last few months. Our sheep and guardian animals are all fine and wintering well. We’ve moved the herd to the pasture at our house, so my “checking the sheep” sometimes only involves looking out the window. When we moved to the house, we started feeding hay. It’s a rich mixture of oat/pea/alfalfa, so the ewes leap high into the air, twisting sideways with joy, while chasing the feed truck every afternoon. It’s comical. We won’t start lambing until early May, so these are easy, quiet months for the herd as long as the weather isn’t too miserable. They’ve had an easy winter so far.

Every time our herd moves, it’s an attraction for predators. It usually takes a few days for our guardian dogs to clean out the coyotes from new range, but this year we’re dealing with a couple of packs of coyotes. A few weeks ago, both Rena and Luv’s Girl arrived at the house at dawn, battle-weary and bloody after a night of conflict. The sheep herd was unscathed, and had been joined on their bedground by a couple of hundred pronghorn antelope. Apparently the pronghorn realized that the safest place to be when there are predators on the prowl is with a guarded herd. Neither of the dogs was hurt badly, but Rena slept for almost nine straight hours in the spot just inside the door where she had collapsed upon entry. It was obvious from the frozen traces left on their neck manes that both dogs had been in physical conflicts with smaller animals that were trying to bite their throats. The smaller animals never succeeded, although Luv’s Girl did have some swollen, bloody bites on her nose.

Because of the sheer persistency of our coyote threats, I’ve been trying to keep one guardian dog kenneled at night – forced rest – while the other two are on night duty. Rant has been doing a really good job when he’s on duty, but he’s returned to the house nearly unable to walk a few times now, suffering from exhaustion. The size of the coyote packs are dwindling, and I’m fairly confident that Rant has decided that lethal control is the way to go.

With three burros, and three guardian dogs, and their location right outside the yard, my herd has not suffered from predation this winter, but the everyday threats are astounding. We see coyotes every day, we hear their howling every day without fail, and coyotes make tries on the herd every night. Our sheep are Rambouillets, which are famous for their flocking instinct, which helps to protect the herd from predation. Stray sheep are dead sheep in this predator-rich environment.

While the guardians have been working hard to keep life pleasant for the sheep, I’ve been busy inside. In December, we became aware that our favorite sheep magazine was printing its last issue. The Shepherd had been published for 56 years, was based in Ohio, and each monthly issue had been full of animal husbandry, nutrition, and management information. The loss of the publication was a blow we felt personally.

So my buddy Pete and I talked about it, and we teamed up to make an offer to purchase the magazine. We were somewhat surprised when our offer was successful, and we scrambled to form a corporation and jump through all the legal hoops. We Wyoming sheepherders now own a national monthly sheep industry magazine – something we had not foreseen a few months ago. The purchase did not include employees – what we bought was the brand, its subscribers, its advertisers, its 56 years of history and past issues.

We’ve just sent our first issue of the magazine off to the design and print company. Although printing and mailing the magazine will continue from a facility in Ohio, it’s with a great deal of satisfaction that we’ve moved the editorial and business operations to the sagebrush rangelands of western Wyoming – our sheep range. We’ll continue herding sheep, and words.

For those who want to know more, check out The Shepherd.

Thanksgivings


It’s been a rough few weeks, with major ups and downs. Son Cass took a job at a ski hill near Laramie, so we fixed a Thanksgiving feast a week early since he was about to head off to the new job. Two miles from our house, on a slick wintery road, he drove his BMW off an embankment above the New Fork River. We’re so thankful he walked away from the wreck. We loaded his gear into a ranch truck and he left, making it to the job on time.

That left us short a vehicle, and although we’d been looking for another truck for about a month, we hadn’t found the right match. Finally, the day before Thanksgiving, I found just the right truck, located in Provo, Utah. We made all the arrangements, and on Thanksgiving Day, Jim and I locked up the dogs that weren’t on duty with the ewe herd, and had a pleasant drive down to retrieve my new ride. It’s a primo 2000 Chevy shortbed 4×4, manual transmission.

The next afternoon, all the dogs at our place were free and lounging around outside while we did various chores. Jim and I loaded a ram and two lambs into a trailer at the house, driving the three miles (just ½ mile on a highway, and the rest on a nearby county road) to drop the ram into one pasture, and then backtracking to check the ewe herd, located in another pasture closer to home. Because there was a short snow squall while we were trying to find the ram herd, it took longer than we had expected, but we were gone an hour. When we pulled back up to the house, our Akbash Rena wasn’t there to greet us. Vega, another adult female guardian, and our herding dogs, were all accounted for, so we knew there hadn’t been a predator event while we were gone, or Vega would have been involved. We searched the nearby Mesa, but called the sheriff’s office because we knew someone had to have picked Rena up.

Rena is not a typical livestock protection dog. We picked her out of a litter to photograph her life, as she grew up with a young burro and a set of orphan lambs. The children’s book describing her life had just been released two months ago (The Guardian Team: On the job with Rena and Roo). We’d intentionally socialized Rena from a young age to make her an “ambassador dog.” She attended book signings, schools, libraries, fairs, and agency meetings so that people could personally meet and touch a livestock guardian. She travels well, and loves to work a crowd, demanding attention and pets. She’d met more than 2,000 Wyoming school children in her four years of life, and dozens of state and national policy makers – including most recently USDA Undersecretary Ed Avalos. Because Rena was human socialized, she was easy to steal. She’d been “rescued” once before, when an oilfield shuttlebus driver thought she was too close to the road, so the woman called Rena to the shuttle bus and loaded her up. I chased the shuttle to town, retrieving my dog and NOT punching anyone in the nose.

But this time, I had no idea who had taken Rena. Was it another well-intended but mistaken rescue? I did a short post on Facebook noting that I had a sheep dog missing, but not providing any details. Jim and I put in calls to all the vet clinics, law enforcement, and animal control and rescue organizations in western Wyoming, and it quickly became apparent that whoever had Rena hadn’t made a move toward reuniting her with her home.

We decided to announce that the missing dog was actually Rena, Wyoming’s most famous livestock guardian dog, friend to children, and star of the new book. The story took off like wildfire, with several media organizations picking it up and providing some excellent coverage. It was going to be very hard for someone to hide this 130-pound, beautiful dog, with thousands of eyes looking for her.

Jim and I were just sick with worry. We had six miserable days of calling vet clinics and rescue groups, talking to law enforcement, and dealing with the wonderful but somewhat overwhelming response of people who were trying to help find Rena. I alternated between crying and wanting to use explosives.

Then early Thursday morning, six days after Rena disappeared, our telephone started ringing. Four calls within a short period of time – Rena had been spotted just a few miles away, traveling down the side of the highway, headed for home. Jim raced down the road and found her. Rena was no worse for the wear – when she came into the house, she was not hungry, had been freshly groomed, and had a sweet shampoo smell. The only problem we could see was that her butt was dirty – she had apparently been fed something that her system didn’t like. She had been cared for, but the person who took care of her didn’t drop her off at home, where our big living room windows provide a view for miles. Fortunately, one neighbor and several oilfield workers were on the lookout for Rena and got word to us quickly when she was spotted. We’re betting Jim was able to retrieve Rena within minutes of her being deposited along the highway, from the flurry of calls we received.

We’ve had problems with people “rescuing” livestock protection dogs before – and even “rescuing” lambs – an act that is also called livestock rustling. The fact is that some people do not approve of the lives lived by working dogs. That our livestock protection dogs have been bred and selected for thousands of years to do what they do – stay with the sheep round the clock, guarding them from harm – is frowned upon by those who believe these are pets that should be indoors when it’s cold outside.

Last winter I had the problem of some “Good Samaritan” stopping in to the entrance of one of our pastures where I fed the guardian dogs at a livestock trailer every day. This person began feeding my dogs – actually dumping out onto the ground a whole bag of junk dog food that my dogs refused to eat. Besides scaring me terribly with the threat that someone could try to poison or harm my dogs, and the threat of having my dogs associate with strangers, the junk food then served to attract ravens and other predators. We shoveled the junk into buckets and fed it to the coyotes a few miles away. We ended up stringing a rope barricade across the cattle guard entryway, with a note attached, telling the person to quit feeding and endangering my dogs, noting my name and phone number should the person want to talk about how my dogs were being cared for. It stopped the problem, but I do wonder if the same person was at it again, with Rena’s disappearance.

We were very lucky to get Rena back, and for that, we are very thankful. Rena was not micro-chipped, but that wouldn’t have made a difference in this case, since the person who took her did not take her to a vet or agency. Rena’s human socialization, which makes her so popular with children, is what made her so vulnerable. Thank heavens so many people cared about this dog, made a ruckus about her being gone, and helped to keep the pressure on until Rena was returned to us.

We are going to seek a change in state law to protect our dogs: If you rescue a dog, you need to notify someone of your action. Otherwise, it’s theft. If it’s not yours, and you take it, you’re a thief.

Here’s a few images of today’s reunion. Rena and her mother – Rena has her tongue sticking out.


And Rena and her Roo:

Homecoming


Husband Jim’s Uncle Walter passed away early last week, so we left home Friday to attend the memorial services in Cheyenne. We were gone for about 30 hours, and of course I was nervous about how the animals faired while we were gone. When we arriving to see the ewe herd in the river bottom, some of my favorite animals came out to greet us. They had done just fine without me, but seemed happy to see us. I love seeing the animals look so relaxed and content. (Click on photos to enlarge.)


We headed to the house to check on Vega and her four-week old pups in the kennel. It had snowed and the wind was blowing, but of course the pups were out exploring the world inside their kennel. Jim decided we needed puppy therapy, so he hauled them into the living room for a visit

This is Spot. He’s the biggest dog in the litter, and he is very grumpy, growling and barking. He reminds me of his Uncle Rant.

Vega decided to come in and check on her pups, so several of them took advantage of having the milk bag nearby. For readers not familiar with these livestock protection dogs, Vega is a Central Asian Shepherd, or Aziat.


And here is our one-year old Hud, a bearded collie who loves snuffling around in the snow.