Now that our Pyrenees x Akbash "puppy" Elko has nearly reached full-size, I have difficulty remembering he's still a puppy - a 120-pound puppy, but a puppy nonetheless. There are signs, however, that his brain is catching up with his body! Here are a few updates and observations.
For much of the winter and spring, Elko has been with our rams (who graze separately from our ewes except for a six-week breeding season). This allows us to keep Elko with livestock without great expectations that he'll need to provide protection - we find that our rams are less susceptible to predators, especially when we graze them at our home place. But this arrangement also gives Elko some sense of what his job will be when he's mature. He definitely seems bonded with sheep - while he's a friendly dog who is enthusiastic about feeding time, he'd prefer to spend his day in the company of ovines rather than humans - critical for a livestock guardian dog in our operation. The rams have also helped teach Elko some manners.
The next step in Elko's education has been to move him with the rams to another location. We typically move dogs with the sheep in the stock trailer; last Sunday, we hauled the rams and Elko to a pasture several miles away. I was encouraged to watch Elko walk the entire perimeter of the new field when we unloaded - that's something our working-age dogs do consistently.
After we wean the lambs in early June, we'll plan to put Elko with the dry ewes and one of our older dogs. Hopefully, the older dog will help Elko continue to learn about how to behave around different classes of sheep (much like our oldest dog, Reno, taught his protégé how to act around lambing ewes this winter). I'll keep you posted!
A final note: we typically have not had to clip our livestock guardian dogs in the summer - they don't seem to get stickers even if they're rough coated, and they seem to handle the summer heat just fine. Elko's coat is different, however; we'll likely give him a haircut before the end of the month.
Note: this is the third and final installment in a series of posts on nonlethal livestock protection tools. Click here to see the first in the series. All three posts are adapted from:
Macon, D.K, R.A. Baldwin, D.F. Lile, J. Stackhouse, C.K. Rivers, T. Saitone, T.K. Schohr, L.K. Snell, J. Harper, R. Ingram, K. Rodrigues, L. Macaulay, and L.M. Roche. IN PRESS. Livestock protection tools for California ranchers. Oakland: University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Publication 8598 (in press).
Sometimes, simply being in the right place at the right time can prevent depredation on livestock. Human presence, which can include hazing and other fright tactics, can modify carnivore hunting patterns and dietary preferences (Bangs et al. 2006).
Many large-scale sheep operations in California use herders to manage their day-to-day operations - these herders can be a predator deterrent. Individual ranchers, rancher associations, or nonprofit organizations may employ range riders. Range riders have mostly been used in areas with potential wolf-livestock conflicts, often with the specific task of disrupting predatory behavior. It has also been suggested that low-stress stockmanship techniques can re-instill herd instinct in cattle.
While there is little empirical evidence regarding effectiveness of range riders, herders, or stockmanship techniques, ranchers perceive the benefits of range rider programs to include depredation mitigation, increased management and information on livestock, rapid carcass identification, and a variety of social benefits (including reduced stress, reduced trespass and littering, improved public perception, and trust building). Range riders can also provide additional tools beyond simply being present on the landscape, including carcass removal, treatment of injured or sick animals, and stockmanship (Parks 2015).
On the other hand, wolves, especially, may become habituated to seeing humans, avoiding areas where they see humans during daylight hours and returning at night (Parks 2015; Williams personal communication 2016). Varying the pattern of human presence appears to be critical to preventing habituation. Finally, range rider programs may be cost-prohibitive in the long term. Most existing range rider programs are funded through combination of grant funding (from nonprofit organizations and/or government agencies) and in-kind contributions from ranchers (e.g., housing, horses or ATVs, investment of time, etc.). Ranchers who have participated in range rider programs in the northern Rocky Mountains perceive the costs to outweigh the benefits (Parks and Messmer 2016).
If you're interested in learning more about the nuts-and-bolts of range riding as a predator protection technique, Defenders of Wildlife is offering a 2-day range rider school near Chester, CA on February 20-21. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like more information.
Obviously, the tools I've described in this series of blog posts fit some situations better than others. Predator behavior, like livestock and human behavior, is dynamic. Predators can become habituated to some tools; as producers, we have to adapt our strategies to these changing conditions. For example, we've used llamas to protect small groups of sheep at our home place. Eventually, the coyotes learned that our particular llama wasn't a threat - and we lost a ram. Our adaptation at home was to night pen the sheep. On the other hand, our particular combination of livestock guardian dogs and electric fence on our leased pastures has been highly effective.
For more information, be sure to check out the Livestock-Predator Info Hub at http://rangelands.ucdavis.edu/predator-hub/. And please share your experiences in protecting your livestock!
Demonstrating these attributes is equally difficult, though for different reasons. Measuring the efficacy of LGDs (or any nonlethal tool) is challenging because we can't measure what doesn't happen. I have no way of knowing how many lambs were not killed by predators because of a specific tool. Furthermore, my situation (in terms of habitat, sheep behavior, dog behavior and predator behavior) may be very different than my neighbor's. Similarly, demonstrating behavior is difficult in any kind of real-world setting. Watching a dog napping at midday is not very interesting for most of us. In the 12 years we've used LGDs in our sheep operation, I've never observed any direct interaction with a predator.
In light of these difficulties, I've started forming a plan for obtaining information that will help producers (and others) understand how LGDs work in different environments, as well as the economic and management considerations involved in using LGDs. With help from colleagues at UC Davis, UC Cooperative Extension, and other universities, I'm building GPS collars that will allow us to record LGD and sheep movement remotely. We'll also use game cameras to see if we can detect predator (or other wildlife) presence in the vicinity of the dogs. After I test these systems in our own sheep enterprise, I intend to work with other producers representing a variety of environments and management systems. My hope is that we'll be able to observe these dogs at work, as well as their interactions with sheep, using GPS in a variety of settings.
The second element of this project will provide a case study in the development and use of a specific dog. Earlier this week, I acquired an eleven-week-old male Pyrenees x Akbash puppy from Dr. Fred Groverman, a sheep producer in Petaluma. While Elko (as we've named him) will eventually go to work in our flock, I will document the training, management and expense involved in purchasing, developing and deploying a LGD pup. My intent with this part of the project is to regularly post information about Elko's development (both successes and challenges). I'll also post short videos on a regular basis to document his development and behavior.
Many of us refer to LGDs as livestock protection "tools." As biological (rather than mechanical) tools, however, using a LGD effectively is much more complicated than using a hammer! I'm hopeful this project will help all of us gain a better understanding of how these dogs work!