Courtesy U.S. Forest Service
A variety of sheepdog bred in Turkey to be especially fierce in the face of a foe has been the focus of complaints from hikers and others using the backcountry.
Silverton town trustees met over the issue last week. U.S. Forest Service officials, sheepherders and outdoors enthusiasts have also entered the debate over regulations surrounding the use of the breed, called Akbash.
Some want the dogs gone, saying they’re hurting the local tourist industry.
“We don’t need dangerous animals in the backcountry,” trustee Karla Safranski said. “It’s hard to believe that herd mortality is so high that it warrants these dogs.”
Town trustees here have heard from hikers and bicyclists in the Little Molas Lake area who said the sheepdogs intimidate them. The dogs snarl and, according to some reports, chase them. A number of ranchers graze sheep, under guard of herders and dogs, on public lands in the summer and fall.
Akbash (literally “white head”) is a fearless canine of Turkish origin used by some ranchers who trail their flocks to the high country in the summer.
J. Paul Brown of Ignacio, who represents the 59th district in the state House, has been around sheep for 40 years. He remembers when only his herders stood between his bands of sheep and predators.
“We cut our loss to predators by 60 to 70 percent when we introduced dogs,” Brown said Friday. “One time before that we lost 13 sheep to bears in a single night.”
Brown is one of six sheepmen who hold a permit to graze sheep in the San Juan National Forest.
Brown learned the sheep business by working with his father’s band, then got into the business himself. He has used sheepdogs for 25 years, at first the Maremma, which is native to central Italy, and later Akbash and Pyrenees when Maremma were not available.
Brown, who has two dogs with each of two bands, said the last thing sheepmen want is trouble with outdoors users.
“Sheepdogs are instinctively protective and may seem ferocious,” Brown said. “But we try to have our dogs familar with people. So if you turn toward them and speak when they bark, they may even wag their tails.”
Ernie Etchart, a second-generation sheepman from Montrose, said by telephone Friday that his dozen Akbash reduce losses to bears and coyotes by 90 percent.
Etchart took over the family business from his father, a French Basque immigrant who came to the United States as a herder. He has been in sheep for 25 to 30 years.
“I’ve had some problem Akbash, but now we try to interact with them, socialize them, and it seems to be working,” Etchart said. “The guard dogs are important to us, but we take issues raised by the public seriously, too.”
Interaction between sheep and people is an issue throughout the West, Etchart said. A mountain biker moving rapidly toward a flock can put a guard dog on instant alert, he said.
Forest Service Columbine District Ranger Matt Janowiak attended a meeting of the town trustees last week to hear their concerns.
He said that his agency had not received any official complaints.
He said he learned from newspaper accounts about the incidents last summer.
“No one called me,” Janowiak said. “No one called the district office.”
Trustees said the possibility of encountering an Akbash is scaring away tourists, who are potential sources of revenue for the town.
“We’ve had a lot of heat over these dogs,” Mayor Terry Kerwin said.
Janowiak offered the consolation that the dogs aren’t inherently aggressive toward people and with early socialization they can learn people are not a threat.
Online literature says the Akbash, which has been bred for centuries to protect sheep, are white, have a double coat, with males weighing from 90 to 120 pounds. When protecting their flock, Akbash don’t back down in the face of potential trouble. That quality makes the Akbash the guard dog of choice of many ranchers, Janowiak said.
“Our mission is to manage grazing and make sure flocks don’t overgraze,” Janowiak said. “But the ranchers choose the dog they use to lower the depredation of livestock.”
They also take the risks associated with a lawsuit if their dog bites someone, Janowiak said. They also could lose a dog if someone, fearful of being assaulted, shoots it.
On the other hand, the unsocialized guard dogs of sheepherder Randy Leonard have been involved with encounters with people on the Colorado Trail in the vicinity of Little Molas Lake, he said.
Janowiak disputed the opinion of trustees that signs at entry points along the Colorado Trail that alert travelers to potential encounters with sheep dogs mean “keep out.”
Earlier, herders agreed to keep flocks on one side of a trail at a time; to stay near their flock when the animals graze near high-use trails; and to move their camps nearer those trails in order to be on hand if an encounter occurred.
Trustees are skeptical the measures would assure safe passage along trails.
Trustee Pat Swonger, who was going to challenge Brown for the 59th district seat but has been told he didn’t register as a Democrat in time, said he’s had an encounter with a sheepdog.
Swonger said: “We need to know how many tourists we’ve lost.”
Safranski, a Silverton trustee, asked what more could be done.
Janowiak said the number of dogs per flock could be reduced. But he added that visitors must take precautions such as having people with bicycles walk by the flock with the bike between the dog and themselves.
The signs on the Colorado Trail recommends what conduct to observe and what not to do, Janowiak said.
“If we don’t stay on top of this, it will impact recreation,” Janowiak said. “But we need better communication, we need a balance, because otherwise we can’t act.”
Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service