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Good Dog! Sheepdogs Protect Predators as They Protect Sheep

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Great Pyrenees like 2-month-old Daisy here are fierce defenders of sheep | Photo: Dave Spencer/Flickr/Creative Commons License
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It's no secret that well-trained sheepdogs do a great job of protecting sheep from wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and other predators. But what you might not realize is that those sheepdogs can help protect the predators as well.

How do they do that? By providing an effective, cheaper and more humane alternative to more standard methods of predator control. In combination with sensible livestock management techniques such as fencing and corralling, guard dog breeds like Great Pyrenees, Komondors, and Anatolians can reduce sheep losses to predators dramatically -- in some cases to near zero.

And the dogs' effectiveness at protecting sheep from predators means less reason for government agencies to kill those predators, which benefits a surprisingly wide variety of wildlife.

In the western United States, the general approach to conflict between wild predators and livestock herders has long been to kill so-called "problem" predators, often in wide-scale, nonselective extermination campaigns. These campaigns can include anything from individual ranchers shooting predators on sight to the predator-killing contests on which we've reported in the past.

The biggest player in the West's traditional extermination policy, however, has been the controversial federal agency Wildlife Services, formerly known as Animal Damage Control. A subdivision of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wildlife Services is responsible for managing conflicts between human society and wildlife in a number of ways, from keeping flocks of geese off airport runways to vaccinating eastern raccoons and foxes against rabies.

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But in the west, Wildlife Services is nearly synonymous with killing predators. Between 2000 and 2012, according to a report that year in the Sacramento Bee, Wildlife Services killed nearly a million coyotes in the western U.S., as well as mountain lions and wolves, in a publicly funded effort to protect the privately owned livestock of western ranchers.

Predator control methods used by Wildlife Services have included leg hold traps and snares, aerial shooting, "denning" -- fogging active coyote dens with poison, with agents often removing pups to kill them by hand -- and explosive cartridges containing poison, which is shot into the predator's mouth when it tugs on bait attached to the cartridge.

And unsurprisingly, given the decades-long practice of setting unsupervised traps or poisoned bait stations, the agency has racked up a lot of kills of non-target species from bald and golden eagles to wolverines to family pets -- the last category including more than 1,100 accidentally killed domestic dogs in the last 15 years.

Ironically, such indiscriminate killing of predators, especially coyotes, often has the opposite of the intended effect. Coyotes live in cohesive family groups headed by a mated male and female pair generally referred to as "Alphas," though "Mom and Dad" would be approximately as accurate. In an intact coyote group only the alphas breed, while other members of the pack assist in raising the alphas' young.

Kill off one or both alphas in a pack, however, and that restriction on breeding is lifted. Several younger members of the group may begin to mate and breed, meaning more hungry pups to feed, more predation pressure on livestock, and a long-term increase in the number of coyotes in the area.

But if an eradication campaign does reduce the number of coyotes in an area, that can cause problems for livestock as well. Populations of deer, rodents, and rabbits, freed from predation pressure, can increase dramatically when predators are removed from an area. That means more competition for forage, which can mean overgrazing and erosion of grasslands.

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Great Pyrenees on the job | Photo: Don DeBold/Flickr/Creative Commons License

All of which makes the notion of using dogs to deter predators, rather than killing those predators outright on a massive scale in the hopes that you get the ones actually killing sheep, seem sensible on the face of it. Sheep get protected, ranchers lose fewer of their livestock, and predators can continue to keep rabbit, rodent, and deer populations down.

And that common sense approach turns out to work not just in theory, but when you actually get those sheepdog paws on the ground. In the last decade, a campaign to shift Marin County ranchers to using guard dogs and other sensible livestock protection measures has caused livestock losses to decline sharply. A 2008 study by Project Coyote founder Camilla Fox found that in the first five years of work by the Marin County Livestock and Wildlife Protection Program, a cooperative effort of government agencies, ranchers, scientists, and conservationists to promote non-lethal predator control, using sheepdogs to protect West Marin sheep instead of traps and poison actually cut livestock losses significantly. Not only were sheep safer, but fewer predators of fewer species ended up dead.

The program's success prompted increasing support from ranchers. Marin County, which ended its predator control contract with Wildlife Services at the beginning of the century, has become a national model for non-lethal predator control. Neighboring Sonoma County declined to renew its own contract with the agency in 2013, and is reviewing its wildlife policies. And conservationists around the state are citing Marin as they urge their own counties to adopt more sensible predator management strategies -- which can end up costing taxpayers far less to boot.

What all this means is that in addition to protecting sheep, a well-trained sheepdog can actually make predators safer, and allow those predators to keep other wildlife populations down, thus protecting nearby habitat from overgrazing. That dog also reduces the need to set out expensive tax-funded poison and traps for predators that end up endangering non-target wildlife on the public's dime.

Who's a good dog? That's a good dog.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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