When it comes to difficult management issues, sometimes it's best to take a lesson from someone else dealing with a similar problem.
Here in the Northern Rockies, unlike much of the rest of the country, ranchers increasingly come face to face with predator species such as wolves and grizzlies. Research involving livestock farmers in South Africa dealing with big cats, such as cheetahs, show that livestock guardian dogs can be a viable solution to coexistence.
In the earlier part of the 20th century, wolves were hunted and trapped out of existence. In 1995 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone Natural Park. As the wolf populations grew, packs spread out across the surrounding states. Today, wolves occupy much of the north and western Rockies, including Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
Along with these population increases have come increases in livestock-predator interactions. Learning ways to coexist with these predators is a necessity if ranchers are to continue their way of life. The use of guardian dogs in cattle herds appears to be one step toward this goal.
South African researchers at the University of Kent have found that guarding dogs can significantly reduce conflict between stock and large carnivores. In their instance, their predators are big cats like cheetahs and leopards.
The researchers specifically looked at the use of guarding dogs to understand what the use of these animals would have on cheetah conservation and how that affected farmers' profits. What they found was using livestock guardian dogs eliminated livestock losses from predators by 91% on farms. In addition, each farmer saved over $3,000 per year due to the reduction in livestock losses. Those are some pretty significant impacts to profit.
When it came to the cheetahs, farmers who had livestock guardian dogs present had a greater tolerance of the predators on their land compared to those who didn't, said the researchers. This increased tolerance helped to reduce unwarranted killing of cheetahs which are considered an endangered species in South Africa.
The researchers said, "This is a true win-win solution to reduce conflict between livestock and predators, because it almost eliminates livestock losses to predators, saving the farmer and a lot of money, whilst increasing the tolerance of predators from farmers, thereby reducing the chance of using lethal control on predators."
So what can we learn from the South African study? I consulted with a colleague and close friend of mine, Matt Barnes, rangeland stewardship director at Keystone Conservation, to find out. A large part of Barnes' focus is finding ways for ranchers and predator species to coexist on rangelands.
Barnes agreed that guardian dogs are one of the best tools to help manage livestock-predator interactions.
"The best are the ones with brains, because they can be creative and adaptive," he said.
"After well-planned and creative grazing management, the next most important tools are range riders and livestock guardian animals, especially livestock guardian dogs," said Barnes. "All of these, especially in combination, are better than all the gadgets and scarecrow-type (disruptive stimulus) tools."
Barnes said guardian dogs work so well, especially against coyotes, because they are wolf pack analogues. "Their territory is the livestock to which they are bonded, rather than a place," he said."
He believes the South African study to be relevant in this situation because the same behavioral principles apply. However the context is different.
"African herds are herded daily, usually at high stocking density, even though most aren't in a rotation per se -- at least not as we define it in the US. So my main point is that livestock guardian dogs work, but their effectiveness depends on the context," said Barnes.
Guard dogs cannot effectively protect a herd that is spread out over a large land base which can be thousands of acres in the West.
"If you can't ride out and see all your stock at once, neither can your dogs," Barnes added.
To date effectiveness of guardian dogs with wolves and grizzlies is not well documented. Barnes said this effectiveness basically comes down to a numbers game of the guard dogs outweighing and/or outnumbering the wolves.
In addition he said, "Many of the most commonly used breeds in the US were developed specifically for protecting sheep against coyotes, and many aren't big enough and fierce enough to protect against wolves."
On the bright side, research in the US by breeders and scientist alike is being done to develop and bring larger Eurasian guard dog breeds here. Rare reeds like Spanish and Pyrennean mastiffs seem to be popular with those few breeders currently in the country.
"Retaliatory killing by farmers is a major threat to the survival of many large carnivore species," said Douglas Macmillan, a professor who was part of the South African study. The same is the case in the American West.
Hopefully through examples like this study, solutions can be found for ranchers and conservationists alike, thereby allowing livestock deaths to be avoided while predator species can function as the keystone species they are to our ecosystems.