U.S. ranchers faced with growing threats from large apex predators like wolves and bears are finding it necessary to upgrade their own four-legged defenses in response.
Over the past several years, some 120 dogs imported from countries like Portugal, Bulgaria and Turkey have been sent to guard flocks of sheep in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington and Oregon. Throughout the test period, federal scientists have been keeping careful watch and logging data to see if these exotic large breeds can provide greater protection from predators.
"When we were first looking at doing this, a lot of people wanted to know: What dog do I use in dealing with wolves and grizzly bears?" Julie Young, a Utah-based research biologist with the U.S. Agriculture Department’s National Wildlife Research Center, told the AP.
That question has become more commonplace with U.S. livestock farmers as recovering populations of wolves and bears have increased beyond their protected borders. Traditional ranch dogs such as the Great Pyrenees, Akbash or Maremma Sheepdogs specialize in defending flocks against predators like coyotes and cougars, but those breeds are at a disadvantage against the more powerful and heavier wolf. To that end, the Department of Agriculture decided to research whether more robust, old world breeds might help close the gap.
"Farmers are sometimes skeptical at first, but once they see how these dogs work, they’re sold," Tom Gehring, a biologist at Central Michigan University who has studied guard dogs in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, told PRI. "Many people put them out and never have depredations again."
The Cao de Gado Transmontanos originates from Portugal and is primarily used for flock and herd protection from wolves. (Photo: Joao Augusto/Flickr)
The three large breeds currently in service under a pilot program include the Cao de Gado Transmontanos (from the mountainous region of Portugal and weighing up to 141 pounds), the Karakachan (from the mountains of Bulgaria and weighing up to 120 pounds) and the Kangal (from Turkey, weighing up to 185 pounds).
According to Young, initial findings indicate that all three breeds perform well at keeping wolves away and excel beyond traditional guard dogs at deterring coyotes. The full results are expected to be published in several scientific papers over the next year.
Karakachans guarding sheep in Bulgaria. The dogs are known for their bravery in fighting back against both wolves and bears. (Photo: Semperviva/Wikimedia)
For environmentalists and animal activists, the use of new large breeds to help deter predation is good news for all living things. If a wolf or coyote is not killing sheep or other livestock, ranchers will feel less impetus to petition the Agriculture Department’s Wildlife Services for a permit to shoot and kill the predator.
"If a producer has a tool that prevents predators from killing their sheep, there’s no reason to kill those predators, or to have them killed by a federal agency," Young said.
This Kangal, a large livestock guardian dog from Turkey, remains on watch over a herd of cows. (Photo: Patrick Sinot/Flickr)
Perhaps the most important thing, however, is how good these breeds are at not only defending their territory but co-existing lovingly with their human hosts.
"They're good with house guests and baby livestock, but don't like thieves," cattle rancher Vose Babcock, who uses Kangals to guard her cattle, told Outside in 2016. "They can fight off a wolf, mountain lion, or bear and then come home and be polite with grandparents and grandchildren."