- (Public Value) UCANR: Protecting California's natural resources
When we were in the targeted grazing business, I always marveled that many landowners and land managers didn't start thinking about managing their fuel loads until the grasses and other fine fuels really started growing in April. To this day, I still get phone calls and emails in April and May inquiring whether I can provide sheep or goats to reduce someone else's fire danger. Even now, with more producers providing targeted grazing services throughout the state, there simply are not enough livestock in California to treat all of the dangerous fine fuels (what many of us used to call "fall feed"). Consequently, we need to think about where and how we graze strategically - where can we provide the greatest protection to neighborhoods, infrastructure, and even our own farms and ranches?
Every spring, I see a news report where CalFire suggests that we're facing another dangerous fire season. Either we've had lots of precipitation, which means lots of grass (a.k.a., fine fuel), or we've had a dry, warm spring (like this year), which means fire season may start earlier than normal. This week, we're coping with the first heat wave of the summer (even though it's not officially "summer" yet) - which always raises awareness of the fire threat even further. We've even seen the first grass fires in the Sacramento Valley. I know I've started paying more attention to the aircraft flying over our home place - all summer, I glance up to see if it's a fire plane (and if it is, I start looking for smoke on the horizon). Finally, these first hot days remind me that it's time to get serious about our ranch fire plan (click here for a fire planning for ranchers fact sheet).
Now I'm certainly no expert when it comes to fire behavior - that combination of fuels, topography, and weather that drives site-specific wildfire conditions. However, when I look at the areas where we graze our sheep in the summer months, I think this fire behavior triangle is a useful lens. I ask myself the following questions:
- Where are the fine fuels most likely to create a ladder for fire to get into brush or trees?
- Where are the likely ignition sources in this landscape? While I can't necessarily control the natural ignition sources (like lightning), are there other potential sources (like recreation areas, roadways, utility infrastructure)?
- Are there assets in the community or on the particular property that I want to protect from fire? This may include homes, outbuildings, wells, sensitive ecological areas, or other values.
- Are there areas where modifying the fine fuels could slow a fire, giving firefighters a chance to stop it? This relates, at least in part, to the topography of a particular location.
When it comes to this last point, I think it may be useful to think of grazing like we're creating what my forester friends call a shaded fuel break. My friend Allen Edwards, who owns timber land outside of Colfax, had the foresight to construct a shaded fuel break on his property on either side of an access road along the ridge between the American River canyon and Interstate 80. To create the shaded fuel break, Allen removed the ladder fuels under his mature trees (brush, small trees, and limbs on the larger trees). When the 2001 Ponderosa Fire came out of the canyon on a hot August day, his shaded fuel break allowed firefighters to safely make a stand and keep the fire from moving further east and north, into the town of Colfax. In the lower foothills, we may be able to use targeted grazing in similar manner. A combination of grazing and browsing livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats) can modify the fuel load such that fire behavior will change enough to give firefighters a chance. These "grazed" fuel breaks don't necessarily remove all of the flammable vegetation, but grazing impacts (including removal of the vegetation and trampling, which can reduce oxygen circulation within the dry forage) can slow a fire's advance. These types of fuel modifications should be coupled with roads or other access points that allow firefighter access in the event of a fire.
If you're considering using a targeted grazing contractor, click here for a fact sheet. I also have a list of regional targeted grazing contractors available on my website. If you're a rancher who is thinking about adding targeted grazing as an enterprise, here's a short power point on the Principles of Targeted Grazing. If you still have questions, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org./span>/span>
When we started in the commercial sheep business over 15 years ago, we knew we wanted to use livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) to protect our sheep from predators. LGDs were not as common then in the foothills as they are today, so our choices were somewhat limited - and my knowledge of these dogs was even more limited. One LGD puppy looked much like another (white and fuzzy) - and while I knew enough to pick a pup from working stock, I didn't know the questions I should be asking - or even what I should be looking for in terms of behavior. While we were lucky enough to pick up an older dog who turned out to be a decent protector, our record of success in our early years was mixed at best.
As we gained more experience using LGDs, we started to look for specific traits in new dogs. And we started to realize the importance of appropriate bonding and early-life "training" (I use the word "training" here differently than I might use it with respect to a herding dog - training a LGD doesn't necessarily involve teach a dog specific commands). As I've gained more experience and insight, our record of success has improved.
Over the last six months, I've been collaborating with extension colleagues in California and elsewhere to increase our understanding about what makes a solid livestock guardian dog. Carolyn Whitesell, who is the new human-wildlife interactions advisor with UC Cooperative Extension in the Bay Area, has experience working with LGDs in Africa. Bill Costanzo, who comes from a California sheep background, is a LGD extension specialist with Texas A&M. We've worked to come up with a new fact sheet on selecting the right LGD puppy. You can download it here.
Over the coming months, we hope to produce a series of fact sheets on caring for your LGD, as well as on bonding techniques and problem-solving. Carolyn and I will also be surveying producers about their techniques for bonding LGDs with livestock. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, you may want to check out my Flying Mule Dogs channel on Instagram - you can follow me at @flyingmule. I'll be posting additional videos about the LGDs we use in our operation!
As I've written numerous times, research into the efficacy of livestock protection tools, including livestock guardian dogs, is difficult (if not impossible). The traditional model for scientific inquiry - that of comparing a treatment to a control - is extremely challenging when it comes to livestock protection tools. Fundamentally, nobody wants to be part of the control group (that is, nobody wants to leave a group of livestock unprotected to see if the treatment works!). Further challenges arise when we begin thinking about other variables - questions like the specific environment, the predators in that environment, the dietary preferences of those predators, the surrounding land uses, and so on.
Yet these challenges don't mean that we shouldn't try to shed light on questions about where specific livestock protection tools may work, or where they may fail. I like the idea of doing case studies - real world examples of the success or failure of these tools. In my mind, a useful case study would objectively describe as many of the site- and operation-specific details as possible. Case studies could take into account that many real-world management systems employ multiple tools. And case studies could be important whether or not a particular approach successfully prevented predator losses - sometimes we learn more from our failures than from our successes. The following account, then, is my first attempt at writing one of these case studies.
Flying Mule Sheep Company grazes approximately 100 head of sheep on foothill annual rangeland west of Auburn, California, from mid-December through early April. The flock is comprised of bred ewes (approximately 80 head) and replacement yearling ewes (approximately 20 head). The grazed landscape is a large-lot subdivision (20-40 acre lots). Individual parcels are connected via paved and unpaved private roads and Nevada Irrigation District canals. Many residences have domestic dogs; some have horses and donkeys. Vegetation in the grazed landscape includes open grasslands, blue/live oak savanna, blue/live oak woodland, and riparian vegetation. Surrounding land uses include grazing land (cattle, sheep, and goats) and a large regional park (mostly wildland).
Twelve game cameras were placed throughout the grazed landscape in late December. Cameras were placed adjacent to game trails, roads, and canals to help determine the species of wildlife present and the frequency of camera "capture" in relationship to the proximity of livestock guardian dogs and sheep. In order of prevalence in game cameras from late December through early April, I noted coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and a single mountain lion (in the evening on March 1, 2020). Other wildlife caught on camera included deer, raccoons, skunks, jackrabbits, and turkeys.
During the graze period (December 15, 2019 through April 6, 2020), we had no predator losses. In early February, I found a buck that was likely killed by a mountain lion. On the night that we documented the mountain lion in a game camera (March 1), the flock was in a 13-acre paddock, the boundary of which was about 30 yards away from the camera location. On that date, there were 47 lambs with the ewes (between the ages of 1 day and 11 days). The sheep had been moved into this paddock on the morning of March 1. We lost three lambs during the time the sheep were in that paddock due to starvation or mis-mothering.
From a purely scientific standpoint, I cannot say that the dogs and electric fence prevented predation. While the cameras clearly demonstrated that we had predators in the vicinity of the sheep, I don't know that these specific predators would have killed sheep (rather than wildlife prey) if they'd had the opportunity. I don't know if these predators took livestock from unprotected herds/flocks during the same time period. That said, I can conclude that I feel much safer having dogs with the sheep in this landscape! I can also conclude that the mountain lion I caught in my camera has probably seem me more than I've seen it!
Given the nature of rangeland livestock production in California, some conflict with wildlife is probably inevitable. In our part of the Sierra Nevada and Sacramento Valley, grazing livestock and wildlife (including a number of predators) often occupy the same landscapes. Private ranch lands and public grazing lands alike provide important habitat for a wide variety of game and nongame species.
In recognition of the potential for conflicts between human activities and wildlife, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has launched a new website focused on reducing these conflicts. Managed by the Wildlife Investigations Lab, this new resource includes information on a dealing with wildlife problems in urban, suburban, and rural settings.
Here's a link: CDFW Human-Wildlife Conflicts Program
Several years ago, I started a social media project I called Sheep 365. Every day for a full year, I posted a photo of something we were doing in our sheep operation. At first, I thought it would simply be a fun way to share my shepherding year with friends and family. I soon realized, however, that it could be a reasonably useful educational tool. I found that other small-scale producers were following along and asking questions. More importantly, perhaps, I found that I was able to share the ups and downs of livestock production with a public audience. I could talk about things like losing lambs to pneumonia or the importance of shearing sheep.
Last week, I attended the American Sheep Industry Association annual convention in Scottsdale, Arizona. During the Resource Management Council meeting, we had a lengthy conversation about public misperceptions about livestock guardian dogs. Oftentimes, it seems, the public doesn't understand the concept of a working dog - dogs are pets, and pets shouldn't sleep outside (or even be outside at all in inclement weather). These misperceptions could jeopardize our use of LGDs.
At the same time, I often get questions from producers who haven't used livestock guardian dogs. Where do I find a good dog? Should I buy an adult dog or a puppy? How do I make sure my dog will stay with my livestock? Will my liability insurance go up? How many dogs do I need?
Beginning on February 1, 2020, I am embarking on new social media project - 52 Weeks of Livestock Guardian Dogs. At least once a week for the coming year, I'll post something about livestock guardian dogs on my social media accounts (on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/FoothillSustainableRanching/, on my Instagram feed - @flyingmule, and on my Twitter feed - Sheepherder Scientist - @flyingmulefarm). Some of these posts will feature my own dogs; others will discuss the ways in which LGDs are used in other operations. There is also a significant and growing body of research about these dogs, which I hope to share during the course this project. Once a month, I'll also devote a blog post to the topic.
Speaking of research, empirical research regarding the effectiveness of LGDs is difficult to conduct. There are so many variables - the breed, age, sex, and reproductive status of the dogs; the environment they're working in; the predators in that environment and their dietary preferences; the time of year and stage of production - in other words, the answer to most research questions about LGDs seems to be, "It depends." For that reason, I also hope to start documenting case studies about LGDs in a variety of settings. These may not provide empirical data, but I hope they capture the range of uses and successes/failures inherent in using any livestock protection tool. I hope they'll provide producers with useful information!
In the meantime, I hope you'll share your questions - and your observations - about these dogs! Post your comments to this blog below, or post questions and comments on any of my social media accounts!