Recreationists air concerns about sheepdogs

Ernie Etchart, left, and his dog, Joe, a 6-year-old Akbash, and Mack, a 1-year-old Great Pyrenees held by Jesse Lasater, get to know each other during a public forum about herd dogs on public lands held at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Ernie Etchart, left, and his dog, Joe, a 6-year-old Akbash, and Mack, a 1-year-old Great Pyrenees held by Jesse Lasater, get to know each other during a public forum about herd dogs on public lands held at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.

Not all canines in the backcountry are just tagging along for a good time.

Six ranching families hold permits to graze sheep on San Juan National Forest allotments, and most use imposing guard dogs to protect herds from predators.

The dogs, typically breeds such as Great Pyrenees and Akbash, take their work seriously.

Last summer, authorities received several complaints from hikers and bicyclists who said the sheepdogs approached aggressively, growled and – in several cases – followed them. Nobody was bitten.

Coexisting in the backcountry was the topic of a forum last week at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. Sheep ranchers, Forest Service rangers and Bureau of Land Management personnel were present to answer questions and listen to suggestions.

Hiker John Bregar recalled an incident on the Colorado Trail when he and his wife were accosted by two sheepdogs. Bregar said the dogs snarled and circled menacingly until they left the herd perimeter.

“It was intimidating, to say the least. An unpleasant experience,” he said.

As the meeting progressed, three possible solutions emerged: sidestep the herds, inform the public or train the dogs. Or maybe some of each.

The first strategy would involve bypassing the sheepdogs altogether by tracking herd movements on a website or Facebook page.

Kiley Whited, a BLM rangeland management specialist, said the technology wasn’t in place to make tracking an option at present.

Others thought it more efficient to control 20 dogs than thousands of recreationists.

“It’s unrealistic to pinpoint the sheep’s exact location. The only plausible solution is for the dogs not to harm people,” said hiker Joe Griffith.

A few area ranchers already have taken this advice to heart.

Ernie Etchart, who lives in Montrose and grazes his sheep on public lands near Silverton, has socialized his younger dogs to be less aggressive toward humans.

“The dogs are a very important tool. They let us stay profitable,” he said. “Prior to their use, predation was 12 to 15 percent. Coyotes are clever and still manage to pick off a few lambs, but it’s minimal.”

If approached by a sheepdog, recreationists are advised to keep pets close, stand their ground and maintain a calm, confident demeanor.

“Stop, get the dog’s attention, use a stern voice and direct them to ‘go back to the sheep,’” Etchart said. “You then become the authority figure.”

Dogs normally do not pursue once intruders leave the herd perimeter.

The high-country grazing season lasts from July to early October.

lgroskopf@durangoherald.com