Guard animals are the principal nonlethal tool for preventing livestock predation. Many ranchers keep a llama, burro or guard dog in the pasture with their sheep to minimize attacks; the guard bonds with flock (especially if raised with the sheep from an early age) and is very alert to intruders in its domain. Stories of successful protection abound: ranchers have watched llamas keep coyotes at bay, dogs chasing grizzlies, or more commonly have simply noticed dramatic decreases in sheep losses without directly observing confrontations. Guard animals cannot provide a 100% cure for predation: there have been reports of coyote packs that outsmart a clever guard using diversionary attacks, or grizzly bears that get the best of a snoozing dog. On our own place, our guard llama has been extremely successful at keeping the coyotes at bay, but we lost four ewes to a bear who came into a back field several nights a few years ago. This year (2000) we have lost several ewes and lambs to both bears and coyotes. Last February, a bald eagle flew into a pasture of pregnant ewes right behind our house and picked up newborn lambs. He ate them in an adjacent pasture. Already this January we have watched three bald eagles flying low (four feet off the ground) over the sheeps' field, presumably scouting for new lambs. In the few years since wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park, some ranchers near the Park have lost livestock to wolves. The wolves even killed a guard dog at a small sheep ranch near the Park boundary. Clearly, the nonlethal approaches do not always work out. (Although there are currently no wolves in the immediate vicinity of our ranch, they are continuing to migrate out of the Park as expected, and they have been spotted in the hills about 25 miles from our place).
Other strategies can help manage predation. Different combinations of techniques are appropriate depending on the geography and economics of each ranch. Devices include: human shepherds; herding cattle with the sheep (cows often chase canines away); and scheduling pasture usage to minimize contact with predators during their busiest hunting seasons.
The essence of the guard animal approach is to acknowledge,
even to embrace, the fundamental predator/prey instincts and the
territorial and protective instincts of many domesticated and
wild creatures. Coupled with this perception of animal behavior
is an underlying land use philosophy: if we take good care of
our rangelands, there will be good forage for our livestock and
a normal population of natural food sources (mice, rabbits, gophers,
deer) and cover for the native predators.
The centuries-old practice of using guard animals has proven remarkably successful in diverse settings since its origins among European shepherds, but there should be no illusions that it is a cure-all.
The rancher who elects not to kill predators that enter his pasture takes a risk. We ask you to share that risk, and thus the reward of supporting sustainable sheep husbandry
|THIRTEEN MILE LAMB & WOOL COMPANY
13000 Springhill Road
Belgrade, Montana 59714