Yesterday as we drove around the mountain picking up mineral boxes to move as the cattle head to lower country for fall grazing, we saw numerous hunting camps placed in grassy spots, and tucked alongside stands of trees. Many of the higher-elevation hunters are after elk, while the mule deer hunters stalk at mid-elevation, and pronghorn antelope hunters focus on the lower-elevation sagebrush steppe.
By the time that most of these hunters take to the field, domestic sheep flocks have left the mountains and are back within range they share with pronghorn antelope most of the year. Thus, it’s antelope hunters who are most likely to encounter the livestock guardian dogs that accompany the domestic flocks. While many hunters may not know the dogs are present, we’ve watched a few encounters as the hunters and dogs meet up on the range.
I once watched a camo-clad hunter trying to stealthily move along our irrigation ditch to sneak up on a group of pronghorn antelope. If I hadn’t noticed his truck parked along the county road, I wouldn’t have known to be watching for a hunter, and I used binoculars to track his movements. When the hunter was still, he was well camouflaged, but when he moved, his movements were fairly easy to track even from a distance.
Those movements also attracted the attention of one of our livestock guardian dogs, Rena, who had been on the other side of a sagebrush flat with the sheep flock. As the hunter took cover among the sagebrush on a small rise, the very large white dog had followed his movements, and eventually strolled up alongside the prone hunter, planting her big behind on the ground to sit next to him. The hunter was apparently watching something interesting, so she wanted to watch the interesting thing as well. Needless to say, the hunter was not successful in filling his tag that day. Rena remained sitting in place on the rise as the hunter got up to head back to his truck before she grew bored and returned to her sheep.
The episode was funny to watch (although probably less so to the hunter), and it wasn’t the only time Rena did something similar to other unsuspecting antelope hunters. One bowhunter reported Rena following her as the woman went to her blind early one morning. Rena lounged contentedly against the back of the blind as the hunter sat inside to wait her quarry. Rena, who had lived her life in the sagebrush among the antelope, ignored the antelope as they approached to drink from the watering hole, and the bowhunter managed to fill her tag despite the presence of the dog.
Knowing that some hunters may not understand, may not care for, or simply not expect to meet a very large dog out in the sagebrush, we try not to allow our livestock guardian dogs to interact with hunters, and now often run interference between them. We post signs that the dogs are present and try to watch for hunters around where the sheep are grazing. But the dogs are attracted to stealthy movements of an unknown creature in their sagebrush home and it’s expected that they will investigate. Once the dogs understand that the stealthy hunters on their range are humans, it’s often enough for the dogs to lose interest. But dogs are individuals, and some, like Rena, have their curiosity aroused and want to stick around to see what happens next.
A couple of years ago I saw two hunters come through the walk-in gate and begin a stalk toward a group of pronghorns. Our domestic sheep flock was on the other side of the antelope, so Jim and I jumped into the truck and skirted around the hunters and antelope to the back end of the sheep flock, attracting the dogs with our movements. We had dog food and cables at the ready, and as the dogs approached for their breakfast, we tethered them while we waited for the hunt to play out. It ended with a young teenager taking his first antelope. His dad had helped guide the young hunter on proper shot placement, aware that the sheep flock was in the background, but neither had known that there was a group of livestock guardian dogs among the sheep when they had arrived. What a great moment for a father and son, and we were glad to have been able to witness it.
Other hunters are well aware that where there is a range sheep flock there will be livestock guardian dogs. One day as we checked irrigation water, we met two hunters looking to bag an antelope, and gave them a heads-up that there were guardian dogs present with the sheep. One of the hunters was from Idaho and had a livestock guardian dog as a pet, while his companion was a wildlife biologist in Wyoming, and both understood the importance of the dogs to sheep operations. They didn’t mind encountering the dogs, and the dogs soon lost interest in their slow hunt-and-stalk through the sagebrush. The hunters were successful in bagging an antelope, and we hauled their buck out to the county road for them.
After that, it became nearly a yearly tradition. One of the hunters came alone one year, and we directed him to a small group of antelope on private ground for a successful hunt. He returned to bring us treats to give to the dogs, understanding that we wouldn’t want others feeding the dogs, which could train the dogs to approach hunters rather than avoid them. This hunter brought his young family with him one year, and we packed them all back out to their vehicle after another successful hunt.
Packing out carcasses of hunter-harvested animals has become routine. We’re trying to be good neighbors to others who treasure this range mixed with private, state and federal land, but we’re also trying to reduce conflicts with large carnivores that also share this range. Gut piles attract predators, and packing carcasses out ensures that we don’t have attractants that draw predators near the sheep.
As we drove the county road a few miles south of the house last weekend, when I saw a familiar-looking pickup truck parked along the road with two hunters standing over a downed antelope in the distance, we honked and waved, hoping it was our annual visitors. They were far from the sheep this year, but we still cheer their success. That’s what shared range is all about.
Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.