Spiked collars

{Intro from Cat: Last week, a wolf tried to get into a flock of yearling sheep on the mountain, and ended up in a brawl with six guardian dogs. Although the wolf was injured, it escaped without succeeding in killing any sheep. If it lives, I’m hoping it learned a valuable lesson. A couple of the dogs were injured but are fine.
Another flock moved several miles downriver from our house, getting out onto the desert and further away from the Wind River Mountains here in western Wyoming. This is the flock we’ve had here all summer, with no depredation even though the wolves kept checking in on them and testing the dogs. We assumed things would be safer for that flock, but apparently at least one wolf decided to follow their movement downriver.

Bear-Bear, the biggest and toughest livestock guardian dog I’ve ever known (a Central Asian Ovcharka/Akbash cross), was badly injured. Since then, I’ve been getting lots of comments that we need to put spiked collars on our dogs. It’s an easy suggestion, but a lot harder to implement on a naïve dog population that most people realize. If you’ve got a stable dog pack on a set acreage it’s easier, but when you are managing a dog population involving four groups of dogs in a fluid system across large expanses of landscape, it’s much more complicated.}

A spiked collar is a tool, an added defense for a livestock guardian dog. But just like any tool, there are appropriate times and places for their use, and some dogs are more suited to using them than others. Placing spiked collars in a dog pack is something that has to be closely supervised.

We have spiked collars, and have used them in the past with a group of mature dogs with one dominant male leading the bunch (Rant). But we are not currently using spiked collars, for numerous reasons. There are four groups of dogs out with different sheep flocks, and the members of each group change on a fairly regular basis at this time of year (for a variety of reasons) when the sheep are on the move. That means that pack dynamics change as well.

In addition, since we’ve brought in our first outside dogs in about 10 years, we’ve bumped up pup production to get these dogs into the working gene pool. So we’ve got all age groups present, from pups just a few months old that are interacting with yearling dogs, dogs with a few years experience, dogs in their prime, and older dogs.

Adding sharp objects to dog collars in this scenario would lay the groundwork for a disaster. Dogs may get their teeth knocked out from inter-pack brawls involving spiked collars. Dogs are smart and know to use the spikes as a weapon. That is great when dealing with wolves, not so great when you’re hormonal and mad at another dog for stealing a bone or growling at your offspring.

In their countries of origin, there are some areas where the collars are often used; in other areas, not so much; and in some areas, not at all. Even where they are used, rarely are all members of a pack collared – only those lead or more aggressive dogs most likely to be first on the scene to challenge a wolf wear spiked collars. In some areas we visited in Turkey, the dogs only wear the collars in certain grazing areas, and by law the collars must be removed before the flocks return to the village.

Juvenile dogs that are still growing and wrestling and figuring out their place in the pack generally shouldn’t wear spiked collars, and we don’t have any collars that small anyway (as in nothing that would fit Boo, who survived a wolf attack in May).

Last week, four dogs from the river flock went on a walkabout and visited a neighboring ranch that does not use dogs of any kind. The presence of four large dogs was startling enough, but we’ve got dogs from Tajikistan with cropped ears – and for some reason, that seems to scare the hell out of people. Fortunately, these kind people got word to us so we could quickly rid them of their unwelcome visitors.

Perhaps when we’ve got a more consistent dog population (which is during the winter when we’ll be feeding hay to the sheep and the flocks are further apart) we can put collars on some of our dominant dogs. We would have more time to supervise the process at that point. But until then, it’s not a good option.

Retiring Old Mama

The last few years, we’ve been working Old Mama into retirement. She’s a fine old dog that has traveled many, many miles accompanying her flocks from the low desert to the high mountains each year. We gradually placed her with flocks following shorter trails, and finally stopped allowing her to trail to winter range a few years ago. She’s adapted beautifully to every change; so long as she’s with sheep, she’s content.

Every day she cheerfully sticks her tail straight up into the air and trots off to lead the flock in the day’s grazing. Her face and body carry many scars of war, proof of her unwillingness to back down from a fight with any predator.

Yesterday was the start of a new stage of retirement, as we placed Old Mama into a large pen with orphan lambs that were born this spring. She’s healed up from her most recent battle with wolves, and is in great physical condition, but her teeth are worn with age so she can no longer defend herself. It’s something that she doesn’t understand, as she regularly sounds the alarm and charges out with the other guardians to face danger.

The last few months we’ve had our hands full with wolf problems, so we’ve been night-penning the sheep, and Old Mama is usually the last to enter the pen, following her flock into safety. But when she entered the pen last night, I slipped a leash over her head and diverted her into an adjacent pen, where she could be with smaller lambs. Old Mama was happy to spend time with these youngsters, but when she watched me let her flock out of the neighboring pen at daylight this morning, she stood expectantly at the gate, waiting for me to let her out. But I didn’t. She would no longer be their leader.

With wolves frequently coming so close to the house, I’m afraid we may be on the verge of a major canid brawl. Predictably, Old Mama would rise to the challenge, and would give her life in the process. We’re trying to lessen the risk of that happening.

We had hoped to stop night-penning the sheep as soon as we start winter feeding, probably around the first of December. Instead of ranging out to graze, our providing lines of alfalfa-grass hay near the house will keep the flock close by. But our discovery of wolf tracks within a quarter-mile of the house has cancelled that plan. We’ll be night penning until we can get these particular problem wolves eliminated.

Perhaps during the day Old Mama and her lambs can rejoin the flock as it feeds on hay near the house, and accompany the flock back into the pens at night. Perhaps my indulging in the desires of an old dog will lead to her demise. While I fear for her, far be it for me to deny an old dog her last wish.

Mountain Counts

A range flock of domestic sheep exits the mountains in the southern Wind River Range of western Wyoming. Before the flock begins its slow movement to lower elevations, herders needed a head count. But how do you count thousands of sheep with only two men? It’s fairly simple.

Range sheep have strong flocking instincts, and if you can get the lead sheep to go in the desired direction, the rest of the flock will follow. The herders (on horseback) approached the head of the flock as it traveled downhill, forcing the sheep through a bottleneck formed by their horses. The men count the sheep as they pass through the bottleneck. (Click on the photos for an enlarged view.)

Even though the sheep could easily go around the riders, they don’t, instead following their flockmates down the determined path. This flock of yearling ewes is used to the counting technique and know the drill.

Notice how the sheep in the top left of the photo don’t cut down the hill to join their flockmates but turn to move through the bottleneck as the herder to the left steps back, providing a wider path.

The tail end of the flock easily moves through the bottleneck created by the herders. This is low-stress livestock handling.

Another Wind River Poem

From Tim:

Wind River Justice

Alan riding his first horse from Big Sandy
to celebrate his thirty-seventh birthday:
his mare reared in the lodgepoles when a spruce grouse
flushed and nearly pitched him down a switchback.
My own gelding stampeded through a meadow,
and our young wrangler called those ponies “gentled.”

We braved Pyramid’s boulders, Barnard’s clinkers,
apogees of our climbs in the Wind Rivers,
then turned our backs forever on those summits,
Gannet, the tallest peak in all Wyoming,
the Highline Trail cleavered between the Temples.
We limped, blistered, back to our dusty Bronco.

There stood a girl, sobbing beside the stables.
The boy, his terror turned to helpless fury,
and a young ranger argued mixed-use forest,
treeline grazing, lamb-eating bears and coyotes,
leash law and the permitted use of rifles.
Read the rules posted at every entrance.

Two hikers had surprised the sheep at twilight,
young Lykos growled, then raced across a meadow
three thousand feet above Big Sandy Trailhead,
and a Basque herder shot the German shepherd
which met no blue heeler or border collie,
no, only a rifle.  Wind River Justice.

Bernie Kelly sadly saddled his horses.
Bearers rode up, and Lykos down the mountain,
but who descends it twenty-three years later,
no longer carrying Murphy or a backpack?
Slippery the scree, the pool below unfathomed.
Where is the meadow and the watchful shepherd?

Wolves, Brucellosis, & Elk

Wolves have blown elk off western Wyoming’s elk feedgrounds on numerous occasions – it’s something that we’ve come to expect with Wyoming’s protected wolf population. Jim and I learned about the 19 elk that had been killed in one night by a wolf pack on an elk feedground in the northern portion of the county before we left for a getaway with the bliss of little internet or cell phone access for three days.

We were stunned to return home yesterday to learn that the surplus kill on the McNeel feedground had made international news. People seemed to be going bonkers in all directions, including these views:

· kill all the wolves because they are killing all the elk;

· the domesticated elk no longer have wild instincts and stand around on feedlots, so it’s no wonder they were killed;

· it must have been hunters (poachers) because wolves don’t surplus kill.

I view most of the comments as oversimplified nonsense, put forth with little understanding of complexities of the situation.

Elk Feedgrounds
Elk are held at artificially high numbers in western Wyoming through a series of 22 state-managed elk feedgrounds in Sublette, Lincoln and Teton counties. The feedgrounds are located on private, state or federal land, and a total of about 13,000 elk are provided supplemental feed in the form of hay each winter. Elk feedgrounds are generally closed to human access – with the exception of the elk feeder, who is a contract employee in charge of feeding hay with a team of horses or with a tractor.

There are only a couple of elk feedgrounds that can be seen from a state highway – these state-managed elk feedgrounds are not like the National Elk Refuge where you can pay to ride among the elk in a horse-drawn sleigh. The elk are not domesticated animals that have lost their wild senses, and they can be easily spooked off the feedgrounds by disturbance.

Brucellosis
Elk and bison that inhabit the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem serve as a wild reservoir of brucellosis – a highly contagious bacterial disease that can be transmitted to humans, and cattle. In humans, it causes undulate fever, and in cattle, it causes contagious abortions. There has been a national program to eradicate brucellosis from livestock since the early 1930s. It’s why milk is pasteurized, and why federal officials long maintained a test-and-slaughter program for our nation’s cattle herds. The brucella organism is also classified as an agent of bio-terrorism.

Brucellosis is a stealth disease that can hide in an animal’s reproductive tract for years without detection. All cattle producers in this region vaccinate (and boost) against brucellosis, but with an efficacy rate of 70%, the vaccine only provides partial protection. We’ve watched our neighbors here in Sublette and Teton counties go through quarantine and whole-herd slaughter because of brucellosis transmission from wintering elk to their cattle. The thought of watching your entire herd sent to slaughter is too horrific for most ranchers to contemplate.

Closing feedgrounds
Most of the elk feedgrounds were established in the 1940s and 1950s to deal with starving elk in bad winter conditions, and to keep them away from stored hay used by ranchers to provide winter feed for cattle on private land.

To close the feedgrounds would be to face the damage caused by dispersing elk that will seek food elsewhere, as they are involved in collisions with vehicles on roadways, move to cattle feedlines and damage stored hay, transmitting disease to cattle, and the anticipated elk population reduction that will follow. So the Wyoming Game & Fish Department has focused on starting feeding later in the winter, ending feeding as early as possible, and conducting habitat improvements to provide better forage conditions for elk off the feedgrounds. The agency is attempting to minimize its feeding program. If it were as simple an issue as closing the feedgrounds, it would have been done years ago. Maintenance of the feedgrounds perpetuates the disease among elk, but spreading diseased elk across the landscape isn’t a good option either. Meanwhile, research for more effective methods to reduce the risks posed by brucellosis continues.

Wolves & Elk
Most western Wyoming elk herds are near population objectives, but some wolf advocates do not believe that wolves impact big game herds. Which is ironic, since the justification for the wolf reintroduction program was based on the need to control the park’s overabundant elk population, which it has. Yellowstone park’s northern range elk herd numbered 17,000 elk in 1995, the year wolves were released in the park. This elk herd shrunk by 2015 to just 1,130 elk inside the park, and 3,714 elk north of the park. At the same time, the grizzly bear population in the region has expanded. Predators have indeed impacted this elk population, just as they do other populations. In localized areas, the problem can be severe.

Surplus killing
Surplus killing involves a predator killing more animals than it can consume and, in contrast to those who say this is a “rare” event, it is exhibited by a variety of predators large and small around the world. From a fox in a chicken coop, to a wolf pack hitting an elk herd, it’s normal predatory behavior. Not everyday, but not rare.

A similar kill to the McNeel case took place on a Big Piney-area feedground in 2003, and there were numerous cases in the last 10 years in which wolves harassed the elk to the extent that the elk “quit” certain feedgrounds altogether. The 19 dead elk on the McNeel feedground included two adult cow elk and 17 calves – that is, yearling elk, not newborn calves. (When wolves killed beef cattle on a private ranch not far from McNeel earlier in the month, some assumed that the five calves were small animals, but they were 500-pound calves by this time of year.)

Surplus kills occur on both wild and domestic herds. A pack of wolves left a pasture of 120 Rambouillet rams dead in Montana in 2009. We’ve had surplus kills by wolves on our place too. And by a black bear, and by a mountain lion.

Control
Wolves in the Northern Rockies reached biological recovery goals more than a decade ago, but are still under federal protection in Wyoming. Even if the state were in charge now, it’s questionable whether any action would be taken against the wolves on the McNeel feedground. But at least state officials would have options if wolves were under state jurisdiction. Right now, there aren’t any.

Those who believe the Wyoming Game & Fish will manage the species to extinction give credence to fear-mongers who thrive on controversy. They point to the fact that Wyoming would allow wolves to be killed in two-thirds of the state as proof that state officials hate this predator. In reality, the wolf population occurs in the western third of the state in an area larger than that designated as necessary in the original wolf recovery plan – and that’s where wolf harvest will be regulated and controlled. That Wyoming doesn’t want wolf population expansion to the remainder of the state is no surprise, and was never on the table as needed for wolf recovery.

Some wolf advocates do not want any wolves killed for any reason. I understand that, but they aren’t the people who experience negative impacts from wolf activity.

I don’t seek eradication of the wolf, even though wolves sometimes kill our family’s livestock. But I would like to live in an ecosystem where this species is actually managed, and I won’t have to feel jeopardized by an action I may take when involved in a conflict with the species.

Old Mama

She’s not much to look at, some cross between livestock guardian dog breeds. Born on the range to working guardians, she’s lived all her 10+ years of life there, migrating with the flocks from the sagebrush-covered low country in winter, to the high country of the Wind River Mountains as the flocks move for summer grazing. Her hard pawpads carried her over more than 200 miles of trail each year, moving slowly with the seasons.

She’s a typical range dog, gentle and attentive to her ewes and lambs, while fiercely protective of canine intruders to her range. I’d crossed paths with her for years, as we sorted the range herds for shipping the lambs to market each fall, and as I visited the herds along the trail throughout the seasons.

Reserved with strangers, Old Mama slowly approaches her shepherds, standing quietly for attention for a few minutes before departing back to the job. The scars on her face reveal her persistent character – she’s not one to back down from a fight with a predator.

About four years ago, after lambing season, the flocks were on the move north, preparing to enter the wilderness, but Old Mama was swollen in pregnancy. One of the herders took her to the ranch where she had a selection of places to den to give birth to her pups. Our family’s flock was about seven miles north of the ranch, still within Old Mama’s home range. Old Mama stayed at the ranch a few days, but there were plenty of other guardian dogs already attending to the small flocks of sheep there, so she moved across the range, seeking that perfect isolated spot to give birth to her pups. She selected a rock outcrop high above a rugged canyon, five miles north of the ranch, but only two miles from our flock.

She appeared one morning near my flock, greeted by our guardians as one of their own. We could see she’d recently given birth, so Jim and I put out food for her, watched while she ate and then departed, headed back to the south. We’d had bears trying to get into our sheep flock nearly every night, but our guardians were persistent, keeping the bears at bay. One night, a bear moved to the cattle herd in the adjacent pasture, and the bawling of the cattle drew the attention of two of our guardians, which rushed to the rescue. I sat in the dark listening to the voices of our dogs as they were joined by a third, as Old Mama arrived on the scene. The three dogs worked as a team as they set to harassing the bear. The sounds of the night told the story: the cattle bawling, the bear roaring and bawling, with sharp barks of the dogs as they moved the bear away from the cattle and back into the forest. The night grew quiet, and my dogs returned, bouncing with excitement and adrenalin. Her work done for the night, Old Mama returned to her pups.

She made regular visits to my camp for food, and we eventually followed her back to her den, much to her outrage. We dug her growling pups from their rocky hiding place, and moved them to my camp, sticking the pups in a stock trailer with softened food and water. When Jim went to check the pups before daylight, he found Old Mama waiting to tend her litter.

We sheep producers often disagree with our guardian dogs about where they should have their pups, but we usually let the bitches have their way during that time they seek seclusion to give birth, waiting a few days before we retrieve the new families for closer supervision. This is nothing new to traditional shepherd cultures – guardian dogs give birth in primitive dens on the range across the world. Some shepherds put bells on the collars of pregnant females so they can follow the sounds of the bells to find the natal den.

I was glad Old Mama’s den hadn’t been found by anyone else. Someone might have thought this dog family needed “rescued” and taken them to a vet clinic or animal rescue in town, far from their rangeland home and away from livestock.

We and our rangeland neighbors have had various guardian dogs “rescued” on numerous occasions over the years – even within a half-mile of our house when the dogs were in the pasture with their flock, as well as a four-month old pup taken from its mother’s side while with its flock.

I used to be somewhat sympathetic to the good-hearted souls who thought they were doing the right thing. But I’ve grown weary of it. Just because a dog is not within sight distance of a house or herd doesn’t mean it’s been left behind or abandoned. Others see range dogs they feel are too skinny, expecting these athletic and hard-working dogs to be as fat as the dogs that live in their houses.

Granted, sometimes the predator situation gets so intense on our range that we have to rotate the dogs to force each dog to get some rest because the dogs will work themselves into the ground. When predators won’t flee, the dogs engage in fights, and getting their ears torn or bites on their front legs is rather common. The dogs will limp around for a few days – as would a human with a temporary but not serious injury. A few tablespoons of blood scattered down the legs of a bright white dog is a shocking sight to those who are not familiar with the lives of working dogs. Most of the injuries to the dogs are minor, and if they do require treatment, we can take care of it ourselves. Livestock producers routinely practice vet care on all our animals, and we have the medicine and the equipment to do so. Many times we administer care in the field, but sometimes the animals are moved back to ranch headquarters. More severe injuries, like those inflicted on our guardian Rena when she fought with wolves, are rare, and do require emergency vet care.

Old Mama rejoined us on the range last year as our flock grazed the sagebrush steppe along the foothills of the western front of the Wind River Range. When we gathered our animals to leave that range in late fall, we brought Old Mama with us to spend the winter months with our flock on a much smaller range. Cool as ever, she’s adjusted to the new experience, relaxing with the reduced workload that comes with the winter season, and leading her flock from their hilltop bedground to the haystack to wait for the sheep to be fed every morning.