Officials are betting that unnerving encounters with dogs guarding sheep in the high country could be reduced or eliminated through a public-education program to occur before flocks head for the hills in July.
The plan emerged from a meeting this week involving the La Plata County Living With Wildlife Advisory Board and representatives of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, the agencies that oversee livestock grazing on public land.
“I was impressed with the presentation of the agencies as well as the heartfelt and knowledgeable response of our board members,” Maureen Keilty, chairwoman of the wildlife board, said Wednesday. “I think we have a good focus and that our plan can be a model for public education.”
Among the elements of the informational plan:
A booth at the Durango Farmers Market where volunteers would explain the history of livestock grazing, the inherent nature and training of sheepdogs, and suggested trail etiquette on the part of hikers and mountain bikers.
A public forum at which stakeholders would give their point of view. The composition of the panel isn’t set but could include a rancher, a Forest Service or BLM representative, an advocate for wildlife and someone to speak for the trail-using public.
Informational signs at trailheads alerting visitors that dog-guarded sheep are grazing in the area. The signs were posted for the first time in 2011.
Maps at visitor centers, chambers of commerce and on BLM and Forest Service websites showing current locations of sheep, which are moved from one location to another.
Matt Janowiak, the Columbine District ranger for the Forest Service; Tom Rice, field manager at the BLM Tres Rios office in Dolores; and Ann Bond, Forest Service public information specialist in Durango, were at the meeting Tuesday.
Several run-ins with sheepdogs along the Colorado Trail around Silverton last summer prompted letters to newspapers recounting scary experiences, personal or retold, with guard dogs.
Several breeds of Turkish dogs, bred for centuries to protect sheep, are used by the six holders of sheep-grazing permits in the San Juan National Forest. The Akbash was the breed involved in the incidents.
Sheepdogs, including the Akbash, bond with their band by nature and don’t turn tail in the face of a threat. No one was bitten last summer.
Janowiak and Elena Cuevas, a member of the wildlife advisory board, who are familiar with the Akbash, said the breed isn’t vicious by nature. But sheepdogs have to be socialized as pups. Familiarity with people, other breeds of canines, farm animals and ranch equipment train them to distinguish a friend from a foe when guarding their flock.
Janowiak related how a rancher from Montrose who grazes sheep around Silverton removed and eventually put down an aggressive sheepdog. Since then, he’s used socialized dogs, and there’s been no problems, Janowiak said.
The BLM and Forest Service provide grazing allotments at several locations near Silverton, including Highland Mary Lakes, Whitehead Gulch, Velocity Basin and Grouse Gulch.
It was brought out at the Tuesday meeting that people who take dogs on federal land must have the pet under voice control or on a leash although there is no leash law.
The expanses where sheep graze in the national forest have no trails for motorized vehicles. But there are Forest Service or county roads that sheep cross from time to time.
Controlling predators with sheepdogs will resolve at least two issues of contention, Keilty said.
Dogs provide a nonlethal method to protect livestock in contrast to the U.S. Department of Agriculture APHIS Wildlife Service, which uses hunters to kill predators, Keilty said. Relying on dogs puts responsibility on ranchers, involves no taxpayer money and should find favor with animal lovers, she said.
APHIS stands for Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
The USDA service is expensive, costing county, state and federal funds, Keilty said. Ranchers also may be reimbursed for their losses.
The sheepdog solution also beats trapping and relocating predators, which rarely works, Keilty said.