Ranchers, researchers test European dog breeds against wolves
Video: Maremma sheepdogs guard goats from coyotes near Terrebonne

Around the West traditional livestock guard dogs, such as the Great Pyrenees and Pyrenees mixes, have proven their worth in keeping coyotes and cougars away.

But federal researchers say they are not a match for larger predators — particularly wolves — so they are testing bigger dogs to see if they are better guard dogs.

The researchers have shipped in dogs from Europe to see how well they guard sheep in Eastern Oregon from wolves and other predators.

“The best way to find out if these dogs work is to try them,” said Julie Young, a research wildlife biologist at the National Wildlife Research Center in Logan, Utah.

The idea of dogs protecting sheep isn’t new in Umatilla County, where three sheep producers are taking part in the three-year experiment. But the breeds of the dogs in the trial are what’s new. They come with names as exotic as their countries of origin — the Kangal from Turkey, the karakachan from Bulgaria and the cão de gado transmontano from Portugal.

Former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov gave Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin a karakachan puppy in 2010 as a gift. While Putin’s pooch is a pet, the dogs in Umatilla County, in northeastern Oregon, will be work animals.

“These dogs stay with the sheep all of the time,” Young said. Much of their job starts at night, when sheep herders go in to bed and the predators come out.

Wolf watch

The project’s budget this year is $220,000. Funding comes from Wildlife Services, a federal agency focused on conflicts between wildlife and people, and Utah State University. Along with the Oregon sheep producers, the project includes one in Washington, four in Montana and four in Idaho.

There is also a sheep rancher in Wyoming signed up for next year and Young hopes to eventually have five sheep producers in each of the states testing the dogs. Wildlife Services conducted a pilot project last year in Montana before expanding it this year.

The dogs arrive as puppies and are soon exposed to the livestock they’ll be protecting, said Randy Mills, livestock agent for the Oregon State University Extension Service in Pendleton.

“With all guard dogs this is an important stage,” he said. “It’s that bond that creates (with the livestock) that protective behavior later on in life.”

The guard dogs bark alarms, warning the flock or herd and spooking predators, Young said. They also will chase predators and stand between them and the livestock.

“These are all breeds that historically have been used to protect from wolves and even brown bears,” Young said. For now the focus of the experiment is sheep, but the dogs could also guard cattle, although differences in behavior between sheep and cattle could make it difficult. Sheep tend to stay together while cattle will spread out when grazing.

Return of the wolf

Wolves once roamed much of Oregon, but state-sponsored hunts wiped them out by the end of the 1940s. Wolves started their return to the West in the 1990s, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced them to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. Since then wolves have spread, starting new packs and claiming new territory. They returned to Oregon in the late 2000s and there are now eight packs and at least 64 individual wolves in the state.

Those packs are clustered in Northeastern Oregon, where ranchers and sheep producers have been dealing with wolf attacks on livestock. From when wolves returned to Oregon in 2008 until Friday the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has documented 86 fatal wolf attacks on livestock.

In the more than 50 years that wolves were gone from Oregon, sheep producers here relied on great Pyrenees, akbash and Maremma sheepdogs, Young said, and often mixes of the sheepdog breeds.

“We just call them white dogs because they are usually just big, white dogs,” she said. These dogs may weigh 70 to 80 pounds.

The breeds Wildlife Services is experimenting with now — Kangal, karakachan and the cão de gado transmontano — are bigger than the white dogs, weighing 100 to 150 pounds. More importantly, Young said, they also may be more bold.

To test the breeds, Young plans on tracking them and some of the animals they’re protecting using GPS collars and seeing how the dogs react to a fake wolf coming near the livestock. The GPS data will show how close to the flocks the dogs stay. The wolf dummy isn’t a taxidermy animal, but it does incorporate authentic wolf fur.

“It’s more like a large stuffed animal and a wolf call,” Young said.

Already on guard

As a meat goat producer in Central Oregon, Jennifer Cole of Tumalo said there is no need to experiment with the different breeds of European guard dogs. She said she’s sure her four Maremma dogs, a breed originally from Italy, are up to the challenge of keeping wolves away from her livestock.

“I don’t care what you want to bring back — these dogs will put their lives out to protect the flock,” she said.

The dogs weigh around 110 to 130 pounds and patrol the pasture all night long, she said, keeping watch for coyotes and cougars. She is raising about 350 goats off the O’Neil Highway between Redmond and Prineville.

Cole and her husband, Ed Barnes, brought in the dogs about four years ago, when they expanded their goat operation from a small collection of animals in Tumalo to the larger herd off the O’Neil Highway.

“We could not have goats out here without them,” Cole said.

Barnes said they have seven dogs total and keep at least two with each group of goats. Since they’ve had the dogs, the number of cougars he’s seen near the goats has gone from six two years ago to one last year to none this year.

“They don’t like the dogs,” he said.

The coyotes are still there, but the dogs keep them away from the goats.

While she may dispute the need to test for a better breed, Cole does agree with Young that guard dogs could help livestock producers and wolves co-exist. Living in the same pasture as the goats, the guard dogs won’t even let rockchucks come near them.

“These dogs are phenomenal,” Cole said.

In the European guard dog experiment, Young said researchers will track the costs of the different breeds and compare them with current breeds , factoring costs such as food and veterinary visits. Most of the expense of a guard dog is incurred early on, buying and training it. Livestock producers may easily spend $1,000 on a new dog, Young said.

Barnes said Maremma puppies sell for about $1,500.

Having found Kangal guard dogs for sale in Turkey for about $300, Young has been able to keep the cost of the import dogs comparable to domestic dogs even with the added expense of bringing them here.

“Our biggest cost right now is shipping,” she said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

Click window to continue