Guard dog study: Do guard dogs reduce commingling between domestic and Bighorn sheep? | TSLN.com

Guard dog study: Do guard dogs reduce commingling between domestic and Bighorn sheep?

Heather Hamilton

Photo by Heather Hamilton "Our organization is about finding ways to allow coexistence, and this project fits that mindset very well. It's not really coexistence if you take one or the other off the landscape entirely." Research Biologist with USDA National Wildlife Research Center Julie Young on one reason why studying whether or not guard dogs reduce commingling between Bighorn and domestic sheep is a valid topic to her and the USDA.

A new research project in its initial stages will study if livestock protection dogs-guard dogs are an effective deterrent for comingling between bighorn and domestic sheep. The hope is to find another option to reduce or eliminate comingling aside from the only current management tool used; removing domestic sheep from public lands that also house bighorn sheep.

“Right now, we’re writing the proposal for research, which will be conducted as a study to help answer the proposed question with good scientific experiments, carried out through sound experimental processes. We are going to submit that proposal to potential funding agencies, including ASI (American Sheep Industry Association). The proposal will also be sent out for peer review, as we are always looking for ways to improve and increase the validity of our experiments,” explained Research Biologist with USDA National Wildlife Research Center Julie Young, who is writing the proposal, of the current status of the project.

Should the project receive adequate funding, it will quickly move forward into the experimental phase. The results will be peer reviewed, and if they pass, the experiment and results will be published in a scientific journal, thus solidifying them as being scientifically valid.

“Dr. Young and her partners in this project are all top notch scientists, and I’m confident in their abilities. We are carefully going through all the proper steps, because if we can show that this idea works, then it gives us one more tool to use with the Forest Service and BLM, which is better than just removing domestic sheep from the equation,” noted Wyoming Wool Growers Executive Vice President Bryce Reece, who was involved in the development of the initial idea during a discussion with Wyoming sheep producers in late 2011.

Reece added that he is confident in the experiment based on how guard dogs interact with other species of wildlife.

“Producers tell me all the time that their guard dogs run antelope away from their herd, or won’t allow deer to get close. It seems like common sense that they would distinguish between Bighorn and domestic sheep, and won’t like the Bighorn sheep any better than they do other wildlife species. Secondly, I can’t imagine why a Bighorn sheep would ever go near a domestic herd if a big dog is out there with them, barking,” he commented.

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A potential location to house the experiment has been found. It has fenced pastures large enough to allow the two species to exist separately, and therefore determine if guard dogs do deter commingling. Using multiple pastures also enables the scientists involved to have control groups of sheep without guard dogs.

“We could do this naturally anywhere that Bighorn sheep exist, but it’s nice to have a controlled setting with pastures. That way there isn’t possibility that they weren’t commingling just because the Bighorn sheep weren’t in the area that day,” noted Young.

Reece added that one potential idea being discussed is using satellite collars on the guard dogs, domestic sheep and Bighorn sheep to collect data during the experiment.

“The collars record GPS location, and you can set it to record that location every few minutes, hours, or once a day, and they are accurate to within about three feet. That way nobody has to be out there and physically watching, and potentially disrupting, the animals. The collars are also programmable to fall off after a set period of time, at which point they can be collected and plugged into a computer. The scientists will be able to use them to see where every collared animal was for the duration of the project, and what impact the guard dogs had,” said Reece.

Young stated that in addition to the direct results of this project, she is also excited about leads into other unknowns surrounding the transmission of disease between the two sheep species.

“How some of these diseases are transmitted is still uncertain. We don’t know if it’s through direct or indirect contact, and through what mechanics they are being transmitted. If this works it will really add to the set of information we have on finding ways to reduce the spread of disease and conflict. I think everything we can learn to help reduce conflict between species is really exciting,” she stated.

Reece said he is most excited about the fact that western sheep producers have nothing to lose and a lot to potentially gain from the project.

“If it doesn’t work, and say the guard dogs just sit there and watch the Bighorn and domestic sheep commingle, we are no worse off than we are right now. But, if this does work, and we can prove that guard dogs are a recognizable and effective means of reducing commingling, we will be far ahead of where we stand today,” he explained.