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Further Reflections on Non-lethal Predator Protection

Reno at work.

From my earlier writing in this space, you may know that we're committed to using non-lethal livestock protection tools in our sheep operation (see Big Dogs, Hot Fences and Fast Sheep - A Few Thoughts on Predators and Sheep-raising or Livestock and Predators: No Easy Answers for a few of my recent posts on the topic). We use these non-lethal tools for practical and philosophical reasons. From a practical standpoint, I can't be with our sheep 24 hours a day to keep the coyotes, mountain lions and neighbor dogs at bay. Even if I could, we often graze in close proximity to houses, making the use of a rifle impossible. Philosophically, we've made a decision to try to co-exist with predators as part of a more comprehensive strategy: we want our grazing operation to fit into and (when possible) to enhance our annual rangeland environment. Non-lethal tools permit us to protect our sheep and protect the large carnivores in our system.  And most days, our system works great. Except when it doesn't.

Two recent incidents have reminded me that no predator protection system is perfect - even ours. Just over a week ago, we ran all of the ewes through the corrals to assess body condition prior to flushing. During this process, we also check mouths (to make sure the ewes have all of their teeth) and bags (we feel their udders to make sure there's no evidence of past mastitis). We also take an inventory by checking off ear tags. This allows us to replace missing ear tags - and, on rare occasions, discover whether we are missing any sheep. This year, we discovered that 262, one of our registered Shropshire ewes, was missing. I recalled that she had been missing at shearing in May also, but I had chalked that up to the chaos that is shearing day.  As we discussed her disappearance, we realized that we had not seen any evidence of a dead ewe (a carcass, roosting vultures, bawling lambs) since she had her lambs in early March.  Doing further research, we discovered that the sheep had broken out just once since lambing started. While there is no way to know what happened to 262 with any certainty, we assume that she was killed by a predator, probably a mountain lion, and possibly when the sheep were outside the electric fence for several hours in late March. She disappeared even though the flock was protected by our experienced livestock guardian dog at the time.
Bodie with his ewe lambs.

Today provided another reminder of one of the key challenges to our system. As you may recall, we recently purchased a new Anatolian x Maremma guard dog pup (Bodie).  For the most part, Bodie has been exhibiting appropriate guarding behavior - he's definitely bonded with the sheep.  In late August, we placed Bodie with our older dog, Reno, with a large group of sheep.  Since early September, he's been on his own with a group of weaned ewe lambs.  This morning, I found a ewe lamb who had been chewed on mostly around the ears.  As I was checking her over, Bodie came back and tried to play with her.  I corrected him (with growl and by grabbing him by the rough of the neck) and removed the lamb.  Tonight, I put Bodie with the older ewes and Reno with the lambs - older ewes usually don't put up with a playful puppy (and chewed ears are a symptom of a puppy treating lambs like fellow puppies). In many respects, today's incident is my mistake.
Bodie with his new charges - the older ewes.

This ewe lamb should recover
completely - but she's not
feeling very well today.

Bodie's handiwork.
I was reminded that Reno - who is the best dog we've ever had - exhibited similar behavior when he was Bodie's age.  We even had a one-eared ewe that we affectionately called "Vinnie" (a sheepherder reference to Vincent Van Gogh) - the most extreme example of Reno's inappropriate play behavior.  While I'm confident that Bodie will outgrow this behavior, this morning was a reminder to me that he's still young and that we need to help him understand his job.

Both of these incidents underscore one of the challenges in greater adoption of non-lethal tools among ranchers. I believe that these non-lethal tools work, and a set-back like a chewed-on ewe lamb doesn't alter my belief.  Instead, I look for changes we can make in how we're managing our guard dogs and our sheep that will hopefully resolve the problem. Similarly, I believe that my time is better spent building temporary electric fence and moving the sheep to the forage than it would be buying, storing and feeding hay. But if I had a different paradigm - if I believed that the only way to protect my sheep was to kill every coyote I saw at the ranch - today's setback would simply reinforce my belief that non-lethal tools (like guard dogs) don't work.

All of this brings me to the real point of this essay. Nonprofit organizations, government agencies and academics (like me) can easily recommend the use of non-lethal predator protection tools. The flip-side of these recommendations is that we can also easily criticize those producers who don't use them as being out of touch with modern production systems and societal norms. But the decision to use (or not to use) non-lethal tools is not that simple. Not only is the success of these tools very site-specific (in other words, a rancher needs to use a tool that fits his or her terrain, type of livestock, type of predator, etc.); success depends largely on whether an individual producer believes in the tool. I believe guardian dogs work in my system and in my environment - and so I'll go to the added expense and labor of feeding a dog every day, of treating a sick or injured dog, of adjusting my management to increase the likelihood of a dog's success. A producer who sees all of these things as added expense and added work - without the associated benefit - would see today's setback as confirmation that the system won't work.

Finally, I find that this morning's episode confirms for me the challenges in taking a biological (as opposed to a technological) approach to managing our sheep operation (for a more detailed perspective on this, see Technology vs. Biology). Biology is much more complicated - we have to understand interacting systems, behaviors and cycles. I have the technology to kill a coyote; I find it much more challenging to understand how our dogs and sheep can interact with coyotes without the interaction being lethal (for individuals within any of these species).


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