This blog is part of NRDC’s OnEarth Magazine’s Answers from the Past month, in which contributors explore how contemporary thinking on sustainability has been influenced by wisdom handed down to us from previous generations. The theme was inspired by New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert's original article Repeat When Necessary. Read more here.
One way NRDC works to conserve predators such as wolves, bears, mountain lions and coyotes in the Northern Rocky Mountains is by working with ranchers to develop nonlethal ways to prevent these species from preying on livestock. Preventing livestock depredations is a win-win for everyone: livestock producers’ bottom line goes up; stock animals’ stress, injury and mortality go down; fewer predators are trapped, shot and poisoned by landowners and government officials; and the American taxpayers’ annual bill for funding those lethal measures (to the tune of tens of millions of dollars every year) decreases.
Unfortunately, despite these benefits, many livestock owners remain reluctant, or financially unable, to adopt or invest in nonlethal techniques. So we were pleased to see a recent editorial in a local Montana newspaper encouraging landowners in Montana to take advantage of newly available grant money being offered by the state to support nonlethal efforts such as hiring “range riders” (herders on horseback) and using guard dogs to protect livestock.
Ironically, the editorial called for “new ways to live with predators,” and noted that “the old ways of doing things aren’t working all that well.” This reflects the widely held misperception that nonlethal tools are a “new” idea, and that lethal measures are the historical norm. In fact, this is backward: the Western practice of simply killing off “problem” predators is a relatively recent phenomenon (made increasingly possible with the advent of high-powered rifles, helicopters, poison, and radio collars), while the use of many nonlethal approaches dates back thousands of years.
For example, “fladry” (ropes or wire draped with flags that flutter in the breeze) has been used for centuries to effectively deter wolves. Shepherds (the historical equivalent of, and inspiration for, modern day range riders), and the idea of deterring predators through human presence, have been around since humans first began domesticating animals.
But perhaps the best example of an age-old “technology” that has fallen out of use in recent times, only to be reappearing across Western landscapes today, is the dog. Livestock protection dogs, or guard dogs, are trained to live with and protect sheep, goats, cattle, llamas, alpacas, ostriches, and other domestic animals. They have been used to defend flocks and herds around the world against coyotes, wolves, bears, mountain lions, foxes, raccoons, skunks, jackals, cheetahs, baboons, and caracals (cats in Africa and western Asia that resemble the lynx). I recently met a guard dog named Max, whose owner told me she once came out to find him standing protectively over a newborn lamb, while meeting the stare of a bald eagle perched in a branch overhead.
Max the guard dog protecting sheep at Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Company in southwest Montana. Photo: Zack Strong.
The use of livestock protection dogs dates back millennia, to at least 5,500 years ago, when the remains of domestic dogs and sheep appear together in archaeological sites in western Asia. In the Old Testament, Job mentions the “dogs of my flock.” (Job 30:1). Yet the use of guard dogs in the United States really only began in the 1970s, due in part to the passage of the Endangered Species Act and a ban on the use of many poisons used for predators on public lands. Nonetheless, this “new” tool caught on quickly and, by 2004, nearly a third of sheep producers in the country were using guard dogs to protect their flocks. As predator species such as wolves and grizzlies continue to recover, and ranchers increasingly seek progressive alternatives to simply eradicating “bothersome” wildlife, the adoption of these canine protectors will likely only continue to expand.
Nonlethal tools to reduce livestock-predator conflicts have existed for centuries, and long since passed the test of time. Livestock protection dogs, in particular, have proven to be reliable, effective, cost-efficient, and family-friendly. They’ve helped solve countless predator-livestock conflicts for decades in the U.S.—and for much of human history around the world. For such a simple idea—training dogs to chase off their cousins—it seems fittingly paradoxical that these newest animals to appear in our American pastures have taught us one of the oldest—and most successful—tricks in the book.