A BullMooseGazette Special Report
By Ron Moody
By Ron Moody
The program was advertised as a discussion by experts on non-lethal methods of preventing livestock losses to large carnivores such as wolves with an emphasis on use of ‘Livestock Protection Dog.’
The real news of the evening, however, turned out to be up-close reports of the strong connection between cow-friendly methods of rangeland management and predator loss prevention - along with a new interest of federal Wildlife Services officials in adding non-lethal methods to their uniformly lethal game book.
The discussion took place in Bozeman, Tuesday, October 29, during a program sponsored by ‘Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife & Habitat (EMWH),’ a collaborative conservation project founded by Kathryn QannaYahu of Bozeman. (http://www.emwh.org/ )
Participating were Representatives of federal and state agencies, private non-profit conservation groups and ‘predator friendly’ livestock producers.
Commercial cattle herds typically spread out across their available pastures; a natural behavior when not threatened by predators, noted Matt Barnes, a former cattleman and field director for rangeland stewardship at Keystone Conservation. “But this makes them vulnerable to being killed by large carnivores.”
When a prey species like cattle, muskox or bison cluster together they are much more able to fend off an attacking wolf or bear and this is an instinctual behavior among wild ungulates, Barnes said. “Can this be used on domestic livestock to reduce conflicts with predators?”
The answer is yes, according to Barnes, and, in a happy coincidence of interests, training cattle to graze in close groups, rather than loose dispersals, opens other opportunities to the livestock producer for better rangeland health and high profits through higher stocking rates on the same amount of acreage.
But training cattle to an unfamiliar new behavior initially requires extra effort on the part of the livestock producer, Barnes added.
Low Stress Stockmanship
Advocating ‘low stress stockmanship,’ Hilary Zaranek, is a range rider working for an experimental ranching project near Yellowstone Park. She is one of those tasked with doing the extra work of teaching cows to herd together.
“There is real labor, some significant work, at the beginning. But it really pays off as you go along,” she said. “At first you have to move the cattle every day; but soon they learn the new routine of staying close where you put them and that becomes what they want to do. Then you can put them up on the hill where the best grass is and they will stay there for several days.”
In terms of a lower predator-loss pay off, Zaranek cited the experience of six cattle herds in her program. “Of the six, the three herds handled most often lost no calves to predators. The three herds handled least all lost calves.”
And then there is the financial reward of low stress handling to the rancher.
“Scattered cattle creates the need for high-stress handling methods,” she said. “And stress in cows means lower weight gains and lighter calves.” Weight translates into cash when the rancher takes his or her product to market.
In this context training cattle to herd close “has nothing to do with wolves,” she added, “it’s just good business.”
Both Barnes and Zaranek pointed to training cattle to herd close as essential for making modern rest-rotation grazing plans actually work to improve forage quality and rangeland health.
Long rests and short, intense grazing periods are key, Barnes said. Doing that means being able to quickly move cattle between pastures – a benefit of training the stock. A rest-rotation properly done can allow higher stocking rates because the plants are able to come back faster and stronger after being grazed.
Going To The Dogs
As planned, the Tuesday EMWH program went to the dogs as the discussion progressed.
The Wildlife Services Division of APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) is famously identified with killing animals deemed pests to agricultural interests. In a dramatic departure from its routinely lethal activities, the federal agency is engaging in extensive research into non-lethal methodology by use of guard dogs, according to APHIS officials at the meeting.
APHIS Researcher Julie Young described the efforts by her agency to import new strains of wolf-grade guard dogs from their native European countries and test them in American landscapes. “We are focusing on ‘Adaptive Protection Management,” she said.
The ‘adaptive’ part, she said, refers to changing predator behavior, changing cow behavior, and, perhaps most importantly, changing human behavior.
Use of guard dogs to protect livestock from predators is now a widespread practice in the Rocky Mountain West. “Dogs are one of the most accepted non-lethal methods of reducing predator losses, and also one of the most effective,” said Michael Marlow, head of APHIS research in use of guard dogs.
But there is a down side with dogs getting into conflicts with humans – particularly in the West’s expanding urban-rural interface, according to Marlow. He cited a case in California when a cyclist was attacked by a guard dog while riding through a herd of sheep – an activity the dogs apparently viewed as a threat to ‘his’ sheep.
He also described conflicts with pets in neighboring subdivisions and even cases where hikers picked up guard dogs and turned them into local animal shelters as lost.
“Public education is crucial to making use of guard dogs more successful and conflict-free,” he said.
“Leave Them Alone”
Professional dog trainer Peggy Duezabou of Canyon Creek introduced the audience to two of her Akbash dogs, Azor and Colt, both of whom appeared capable of competing with wolves in the heavy-weight division.
“When you see one of these dogs out on the landscape, leave it alone,” She urged. “The dog is at work doing its job.” And above all don’t do anything the dog could interpret as an attack on the livestock it is protecting.
Becky Weed of Belgrade, a woolgrower who had used ‘predator friendly’ methods including guard dogs for 18 years, concluded the program with first-person insights into the new livestock producing landscape.
“Wildlife Services is doing research on non-lethal methods,” she said. “But it is hard to do rigorous, scientific research on something like livestock losses to predators.
“The whole business of being ‘predator friendly’ is about adaptation to change. It means reading a complicated code of relationships between cattle, wild animals, people and dogs.
“In the end, if you want something to work you can make it work,” Weed said.