- Animals: sheep
- Animal Production: animal protection and health, grazing management
- Education and Training: extension, on-farm/ranch research
We recorded behavior of livestock protection dogs (LPDs) as the first step toward developing strategies for mitigating conflicts between LPDs and recreationists on western rangelands. Our field study was conducted on foothill and mountain rangeland of southwestern and west-central Montana. We placed Global Positioning System (GPS) collars on LPDs and sheep to document how far, and under what circumstances, LPDs travelled away from the sheep they were protecting. We evaluated the behavior of 13 LPDs during summer and fall across seven ranches and three years. Overall, roaming distance (i.e., distance between the LPD and the sheep they were protecting) averaged 198 m (0.1 mile). Female LPDs roamed 83 m (272 feet) farther from their sheep than male LPDs, and roaming distance of both sexes averaged 42 m (138 feet) more during summer than fall. Roaming distance did not differ between LPDs cohabiting with or without high densities of wolves and grizzly bears. LPDs remained closer to their sheep during mid-day and roamed farther away at night, but mean roaming distance of the 13 LPDs never exceeded 300 m (0.2 mile) during any hour of the day or night. However, the maximum roaming distance recorded of every LPD exceeded 400 m (0.25 mile). The American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) currently recommends that sheep and associated LPDs be kept at least 400 m (0.25 mile) from any trailhead, campground or picnic area during weekends, holidays, or other high potential recreational use periods. Our results suggest that keeping range sheep 200 m (0.1 mile) away from recreation sites will markedly reduce the likelihood of LPD-recreationist encounters. Keeping range sheep 400 m (0.25 mile) away from recreation sites will prevent most, but not all, encounters between LPDs and recreationists.
Livestock protection dogs (LPDs), or guard dogs, have been used worldwide for centuries to limit cattle, sheep, and goat depredation by wild predators. Widespread use of LPDs in the western US, however, did not begin until the latter 1970s after passage of the Endangered Species Act and concurrent restrictions on the use of poisons for lethal predator control. Research in the 1970s and 1980s helped develop management strategies for using LPDs, and LPDs were proven effective for protecting livestock (mostly sheep) from predation (mostly by coyotes). Very little research has occurred with LPDs since the 1980s, but the situation in the western US has changed dramatically in the past few decades, providing new challenges. Two of the biggest changes have been: 1) the expansion of wolf and grizzly bear populations, and 2) the expansion of human recreation and exurban residential development on forest and rangeland landscapes. These two changes have converged to threaten the continued use of LPDs for protecting livestock from depredation.
Beginning in the 1970s, LPDs in the western US were selected for their aggressive behavior against predators (mostly coyotes) and non-aggression to humans. Most sheep and goat ranchers in the West, and increasing numbers of cattle ranchers, could not continue producing livestock without the use of LPDs. However, increasing concerns about potential conflicts between LPDs and human recreationists are threatening the continued use of LPDs. For example, in a widely publicized incident in Colorado, a mountain biker was attacked by two LPDs on a public land grazing allotment. The rancher was held liable for having dangerous dogs not under control on federal public land. In response, the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) developed an initial set of Best Management Practices (BMPs) to help livestock producers optimize the use of their LPDs while minimizing potential conflicts with neighbors and recreationists. One BMP recommends that livestock and associated LPDs should be kept at least 0.25 mile from any trailhead, campground or picnic area during weekends, holidays, or other high potential recreational use periods. No data currently exist to support or refute this recommendation.
Proactive, innovative strategies are needed to mitigate potential conflicts between LPDs and humans on western landscapes that support ever-increasing numbers of large carnivores and humans. The first step toward developing these strategies is to study LPD behavior when cohabiting with or without high densities of large predators such as wolves and grizzly bears.
This project was a collaborative partnership among seven private sheep producers, three state livestock producer associations (Montana Wool Growers Association, Montana Public Lands Council, Montana Association of State Grazing Districts), five federal government agencies (USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services, USDA-Agricultural Research Service, US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service), the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station, and Montana State University Extension.
Our project aimed to create and disseminate new knowledge about LPDs to help sheep producers, sheep industry organizations, and government agencies refine their BMPs for LPDs. Ultimately, we desired to help sheep producers make their livestock grazing enterprises more sustainable and to better enable these enterprises to: 1) sustain or increase their production of food and fiber, and 2) sustain or increase their ecological, economic, and social contributions to society. Our objective was to examine how far, and under what circumstances, LPDs traveled away from the sheep they were guarding. We examined whether LPD behavior was influenced by season (summer vs. fall), sex (male dogs vs. female dogs), time of day, or whether the landscape was cohabited by high densities of wolves and grizzly bears.