Western ranchers seek new ways to keep hikers, bikers safe from the guard dogs that protect their sheep
Two sheep dogs' attack on a Colorado mountain biker has prompted ranchers in the West to seek better ways to manage the large dogs that protect their herds against predators.
The American Sheep Industry Assn. has been working with state groups and federal agencies to address the problem as more people make their way into once-remote areas where sheep graze. With more hiking and biking trails being cut through public lands the federal government leases to ranchers, sheep herders and outdoors enthusiasts say it's a problem that has become more urgent.
"We have more and more dogs in use and more and more encroachment into traditional agricultural areas, and we're running into the need for more management of our dogs and education for the public as to why the dogs are there and what they do," said Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Assn.
The dogs, typically Great Pyrenees, protect sheep against coyotes, mountain lions and bears and have become more common since the 1970s and '80s, when the government banned traps and poisons as ways to control predators.
Without them, everyone agrees, sheep ranchers would suffer huge losses to predators and might give up the business.
"When you come to terms where we can't protect our livestock and can't protect our livelihood, it's just not worth it anymore," said Tony Theos, a Meeker, Colo., sheep rancher.
The fluffy white Great Pyrenees have long been used to guard sheep in mountainous areas of Europe. They can reach 100 pounds or more and are territorial, protective and fearless, according to the American Kennel Club. That makes them formidable guard dogs and fearsome attackers.
Two pulled Renee Legro off her mountain bike near Vail, Colo., in July 2008 and mauled her. Legro needed 60 stitches to close her wounds. The dogs' owner, Sam Robinson, was convicted of possession of a dangerous dog, fined and ordered to perform community service.
Legro and her attorney didn't return telephone messages.
Robinson's attorney, Ted Hess, said he is appealing his conviction, claiming there was no proof it was his dogs that attacked Legro. Hess also said Legro is suing Robinson, who had his dogs put down. Robinson lost a quarter of his herd to predators in the year after, he added.
The attack on Legro was an extreme case, but industry officials acknowledge others have occurred.
Mia Stockdale, who owns a mountain bike school in Vail, said she was bitten by a sheep dog 15 years ago and incidents are becoming more common. For her, the solution is simple: "The sheep should not be near heavily used trails. Those dogs are super scary."
Mike Kloser, another mountain biker from Vail, said he's been chased and confronted by dogs numerous times and one once nipped a person he was riding with. He advocated better communication between ranchers and riders and said the dogs' owners need to be responsible for their actions.
"They will charge you," Kloser said. "You wouldn't think they would be that aggressive, but they are."
Sheep ranchers have tried to keep sheep and dogs away from roads and trails on weekends and from areas where people are camping, Theos said. He also has posted signs to make the public aware that his sheep and dogs are nearby.
But ranchers lease vast areas for their sheep to graze, and in most cases, it's not feasible to block them off from trails the public may have cut through.
"It's a matter of education from both sides," Theos said. "[The public] needs to be aware of their surrounding and where they're at."
Rob Roudabush, division chief of range land and resources for the Bureau of Land Management, said he thinks it's possible for both ranchers and the public to use the land but some level of protection will probably be needed in recreational areas.
"It's a huge wake-up call for the industry and the government and we're trying to get ahead of the issue so we have reasonable requirements in place to protect the public," he said.
Along with posting signs, a task force created by the American Sheep Industry Assn. has recommended ranchers neuter male dogs to keep them from wandering, better socialize dogs to people and vehicles so they don't view them as a threat, and keep guard dogs off public lands if they show aggression toward people or other leashed dogs, among other things.
"A hiker or biker has just as much right as we do," said Bonnie Brown, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Assn. "We are making a concerted effort to work with producers to let them more intentionally manage these dogs."
Janet McNally, who raises sheep and guard dogs near Hinckley, Minn., said she's skeptical of the need for new rules because the dogs might not be entirely to blame. In some cases, bicyclists have ridden through sheep herds hooting and hollering, she said.
"That does nothing but draw the attention of the dogs and it's a very dangerous thing to do," McNally said.
She said she'd like to see a review of incidents to see whether the dogs were provoked or a particular breed is more prone to attack.
She raises Maremmas, which are similar in appearance and size to the Great Pyrenees. The dogs are aloof, don't like contact with people and stick close to the herd, which suits her situation in eastern Minnesota.
As puppies, they only get attention during feeding time, and otherwise are kept with the sheep. McNally took issue with the suggestion they be better socialized.
"The dogs that are the least social are the best guard dogs," she said. "Ones that are friendly and come up to you will stay with you and not the sheep."
McNally strongly advocated more public education about the dogs, their purpose and how to avoid conflict when people run into them.
"It's a troubling place to be," she said. "The dogs are there to keep the sheep and intruder apart, whether it's four-legged and furry or someone on a bicycle."
-- Michael J. Crumb, Associated Press
Photos: Sheep rancher Sam Robinson and his Colorado sheep ranch in 2009. Credit: Nathan W. Armes / For The Times