Tools of the trade
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
NEW CASTLE, Colorado – One facet of the growth of recreation in Western Colorado is the issue of conflicts between sheep ranchers, their livestock protection dogs and recreationalists in the backcountry.
Mountain bikers and hikers are increasingly using areas historically occupied only by cows, sheep and the predators attracted to the herds.
Those same recreation-hungry residents are now encountering large dogs that are bred to watch over the sheep, with results that have not always been amicable.
“This is one of the three most important issues facing the sheep industry today,” said Carla Roberts. She and her husband, Warren, and their family run a sheep ranch north of New Castle, with federal grazing leases on 25,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land straddling the Buford Road in the Flat Tops area.
The Roberts, who recently were named Ranchers of the Year largely due to their water conservation work over decades of ranching, own 14 Akbash dogs.
A popular breed for watching over sheep, the dogs are of Turkish descent and generally perceived as gentle with humans, if a little skittish and shy.
But they also are known as fierce and aggressive defenders of sheep against predators such as coyotes, mountain lions and bears.
According to the Roberts, their dogs have not accosted any humans. And it is not their dogs they are worried about.
It’s people that the Roberts feel are the real problem. The ranching family is on a mission to educate the public about livestock protection dogs, the industry’s needs, and how people can avoid confrontations with the dogs.
“They’re similar to a black lab in personality,” said Warren Roberts of the Akbash breed.
“We love on ’em,” said his daughter, Katie, who is in charge of training the dogs for their work. “But we love on ’em with the sheep, because we want them to bond with the sheep.”
Starting at the age of eight weeks or so, the dogs are kept with the sheep until about the age of six months, when they learn they can jump over the fences and escape.
At that point, she said, she starts training them to be ranch dogs, as well as guardians of the sheep, teaching them how to relax when chained up, how to ride in a pickup truck, and other ranch dog skills.
The Roberts have been using Akbash as livestock protection dogs (known as LPDs in the industry) for about 25 years.
But in an effort to tone down the potential for conflicts, they have recently acquired two puppies cross-bred with a Russian breed, the Ovtcharka. Warren Roberts said he was told by a breeder that the combination would produce a dog that is aggressive toward predators but more friendly toward humans.
Although Roberts firmly endorses the dogs’ amiability and equanimity around people, he conceded that there have been conflicts involving backcountry hikers and bikers, but insisted the dogs are usually not at fault.
“They are not a pet,” he noted, explaining that they are another form of livestock on a ranch, and are listed as such on insurance policies.
When encountered by hikers or mountain bikers, he said, the dogs’ typical reaction is to “check out whatever is approaching” to determine if it is a predator.
Normally, Roberts said, the dog will chase a predator a short distance and then return to the herd. He said the dogs occasionally kill coyotes, but only rarely will they fight with a lion or a bear.
Tai Jacober, a sheep rancher in the Carbondale area who recently bought 800 sheep from Roberts and is wintering them at the Sustainable Settings property on the Crystal River, said his experience has been a little different.
Jacober, part of a ranching family that came to the Roaring Fork Valley from eastern Colorado a couple of decades ago, also is using two of Roberts’ Akbash dogs.
He says the dogs are ideally suited to the solitary existence that comes with their task, and are noisy and aggressive enough that mountain lions and coyotes have not been too much of a problem.
“Sometimes they’ll chase something for 10 miles,” he said, noting that he has come across an occasional coyote carcass that he thinks is due to the dogs’ vigilance.
But Jacober agreed that the dogs’ most important weapon is their bark and their growl, which they will keep up all night as they prowl around a tightly gathered herd of sheep.
And he agreed that the dogs, while shy, are friendly and approachable by people and other dogs.
Roberts said the growling bark, emitted when approaching anything that might be a predator, is the behavior that can alarm recreationalists.
Sometimes, Roberts said, mountain bikers riding silently might come upon the sheep and their protector without warning. Thus caught off guard, the dog may charge at the intruder, barking, which is what it was bred to do.
The best move for a hiker or mountain biker in that circumstance, he said, is to stand his or her ground and speak to the dog in a normal tone of voice, encouraging the animal to get back to the sheep and do its job.
Having been raised by humans, the dog’s instinct will be to obey and break off its charge, returning to the sheep once it hears the voice, Roberts said.
But problems have cropped up, he admitted.
The most frequently cited incident involving an attack by a livestock protection dog on a person happened at Camp Hale, a World War II military training site and popular recreational area near Leadville.
In July of 2008, mountain bike racer Renee Legro of Eagle was taking part in a formal race when she was mauled by two Great White Pyrenees that were standing watch over a herd of 1,300 sheep.
Legro approached the herd on her mountain bike at dusk and alone, according to news reports, long after the race had finished. She started screaming as soon as she saw the sheep and realized the dogs must be nearby, she told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Nicholas Riccardi.
One dog pulled her from her bike, and the other one joined in as she continued to scream until being rescued by nearby campers, according to the report.
The incident resulted in the destruction of the dogs at the request of their owner, sheep rancher Sam Robinson, after authorities said the dogs needed to be penned up forever.
Worried that further incidents would bankrupt him, Robinson no longer uses dogs. He has reported losing 26 percent of his herd to predators last year.
In a report published in the Sheep Industry News in early 2010, Robinson recalled the early days of sheep ranching when his grandfather, also a sheep rancher, had to carry a pistol in case of trouble with cattlemen.
“Now we get along pretty well with the cattle people,” he told the reporter, Lee Benson. “But we’re under fire from the mountain bikers. It’s a modern range war. A clash of cultures.”
Robinson and the Roberts family say the livestock protection dogs are the last viable tool in their constant war against predators.
Warren Roberts said his family operation lost 40 ewes and at least 87 lambs to mountain lion and bear in the last year, and an uncounted number to coyotes. He equated the loss to $35,000.
“And that’s with the dogs,” he said. Having been forced to give up poison and leg-hold traps, he said, the dogs are all that sheep ranchers have left.
“If we have to stop using dogs, you might as well shut down the sheep industry,” Roberts said bluntly.
Both Carol and Katie Roberts have been invited to speaking engagements about the issue, talking with kids at school, cattle ranchers and a group of people who build mountain biking trails in the backcountry.
“It’s come to the point where, while we have to take a lot of responsibility for the dogs, it’s also the recreationalists’ responsibility to learn the right way to act around the dogs,” Carol said.
Katie quoted the U.S. Forest Service motto, “Land of Many Uses,” as a guide for future talks.
She said the important thing is for all parties – the sheep ranchers, the recreationalists, federal land managers, everybody – to begin talking about the issue and work out ways to jointly use public lands.
“We’re willing to do our part,” said Warren Roberts. “We just want it to be known that the public has to do its part, too.”
Those seeking more information about the issue can visit the American Sheep Industry website, http://www.sheepusa.org.
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