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Tracking Wild

in Agriculture/Cat Urbigkit/Column/News/wildlife
Good deer
Researchers use radio collars to track mule deer migration through the Wind River Mountains. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

There are probably thousands of tracking devices installed on wild animals in Wyoming.

From collars or eartag transmitters placed on big game animals and large carnivores like wolves and bears, to backpack harnesses or neck bands installed on a variety of bird species, and the surgical insertion of devices into fish, the amount of wildlife tracking conducted every year in Wyoming is astounding.

The collar on this migrating mule deer in May 2019 was too loose, rubbing the hair off the animal’s neck and hitting it in the head when the animal grazed.
The collar on this migrating mule deer in May 2019 was too loose, rubbing the hair off the animal’s neck and hitting it in the head when the animal grazed. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)

But the Wyoming Game & Fish Department (WG&F) can’t tell you how many animals are wearing these devices. I know that because I asked: first informally, and when that didn’t yield any information, I was instructed to submit a formal request, which I did. The response noted “there is not an easy way to show how many animals actually have collars on them at this point.” I was told that “it would take quite a few hours to go through each permit report” to see how many animals were actually collared under each permit issued by the department even in a single year, but if I wanted to pursue the matter, the agency would send me a cost estimate for that effort. I declined. 

I had naïvely assumed there must be a central electronic location accessed by wildlife biologists to see the status of monitored animals, but that is not the case. Even the University of Wyoming’s Wildlife Migration Initiative’s Migration Viewer provides simple summaries of ungulate movements. WMI notes in bold type that “the raw location data can only be obtained by contacting the original data owner,” and “This allows us to share ungulate movement data with a broad range of users, while protecting the integrity of the datasets and the proprietary study or project needs of the many researchers that collected and own the data.”

This bison in Yellowstone National Park had its radio collar tangled in its horn.
This bison in Yellowstone National Park had its radio collar tangled in its horn. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)

Some of the tracking devices placed on wild animals in Wyoming are conventional, very-high-frequency (VHF); others provide satellite tracking; and still others make use of the global positioning system (GPS). But all wildlife research in Wyoming that requires live-handling of animals to attach tracking devices begins with obtaining a permit from WG&F. Although wildlife researchers have until January 1 of the year following their permit expiration to file a detailed report with the agency, it’s unfortunate that data-sharing with our state’s wildlife managers is limited to by-then dated information.

When the Teton County Planning and Development office contracted with Biota Research and Consulting, Inc., to identify, describe, and map important habitat features for a range of wildlife species as part of its county comprehensive plan process, Biota worked to develop GIS overlays for all wildlife species in the county. That process required identifying all available datasets in existence, held by both private and public entities conducting wildlife research. Biota ended up developing unique data sharing contracts “in the interest of meeting the various concerns about misuse of data from each of the project contributors.”

“Although some potential collaborators willingly shared their data, other potential collaborators in both the private and public sector clearly articulated their unwillingness to share data, or failed to provide data that they agreed to share,” Biota noted.

What prompted my interest in the issue was the appearance of radio-collared mule deer and pronghorn antelope on our place, and some of those collars were not properly fitted. Since some of the mule deer have an easily-read bright numbered tag attached to the outside of the collar, I assumed our local WG&F biologist would be able to provide information on when the collar was placed, and to what end (the goals of the research project). Alas, that is not the case. The public or private entity conducting the research retains the real-time specifics, while WG&F has more a general knowledge of what research projects are taking place, and can access the annual reports from those research projects.

Research on the impacts of natural gas development on the Pinedale Anticline resulted in the collaring of this pronghorn antelope which was getting rubbed raw by its loose collar during frigid winter temperatures.
Research on the impacts of natural gas development on the Pinedale Anticline resulted in the collaring of this pronghorn antelope which was getting rubbed raw by its loose collar during frigid winter temperatures. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)

Open sores and hair loss are frequent adverse effects from the use of radio-collars and other telemetry devices, as are animal entanglements in the collars themselves. Ill-fitting collars cause wounds and infections, and too tight a collar can restrict air flow and swallowing. As some researchers have pointed out, “ill-fitting collars and problems associated with them clearly influence research results and have implications for ethics within the wildlife profession.”

Behavioral impacts from the use of radio-collars are often discounted as insignificant, but there has been little research into this issue. Still, some research has revealed that collared moose in Norway keep in groups separate from non-collared moose. Brightly-colored collars on deer have resulted in higher harvest rates by deer hunters able to see these colors from a distance. Water and ice build-up under and around collars has been an issue for young ungulates. Other research has found impacts to a broad range of species, from voles to penguins.

There is no doubt that telemetry is an important tool in the research and management of many wildlife species. It’s my hope that researchers will strive for a better understanding of the potential negative consequences of strapping telemetry devices to wild animals (altering behavioral patterns should be a significant concern). And as science and technology advances, agencies like the WG&F may have to put in place better data-sharing mechanisms for the information harvested from wild animals in Wyoming.

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. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Chronic Wolf Depredation

in Agriculture/Cat Urbigkit/Column/News
wolf
Photo credit: Cat Urbigkit
2498

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

I recently attended a meeting of fellow sheep and cattle producers who raise livestock in the part of Sublette County that is outside Wyoming’s trophy zone for wolves.

Wolves in the trophy zone are subject to regulated harvest as determined by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WG&F) with hunting seasons and quotas, but in the predator zone, wolves can be killed at any time, for any reason.

If a livestock producer has wolves preying on their livestock in the trophy zone, it is the WG&F’s responsibility to both take care of the problem and to provide compensation for livestock losses to wolves. Not so in the predator zone. Although there is no regulation on the “take” of wolves in the predator zone, there is no state compensation program for livestock losses due to wolf depredation.

The state does have a program to help local predator boards pay for wolf control in the predator zone when there are confirmed livestock depredations, but again, no compensation program.

At the meeting, I listened to two of my neighbors who belong to a grazing association discuss their historic annual herd death-loss rate of 2%, and how that rate has now increased to 10%. The increase comes despite the application of intensive animal health protocols, and active herding by range riders living with the cattle. This is the same scenario as that faced by cattle producers experiencing grizzly bear depredation on their herds in the Upper Green River region of the same county.

With losses now 10% or more, several Upper Green producers said they wouldn’t be able to stay in the cattle business without the WG&F compensation program.

Two of my neighbors in the predator zone ended the grazing season short a total of 48 calves. A few calves were verified as wolf kills, but the majority of the missing calves simply disappeared, as is typical when a large carnivore species preys on livestock in rugged terrain. If each of those calves were sold at $700 per head this fall, that’s a loss of $33,600 in revenue between the two neighbors.

Five other neighboring producers (including me) didn’t disclose their losses, but all had enough losses to wolves to bring us all into the same room for a discussion. I can think of two other neighboring producers who weren’t able to attend the meeting but are in the same boat as the rest of us.

Our portion of the southern Wind River Mountains has become known as a chronic wolf depredation area. This area was not included in the trophy wolf zone specifically “because of the high potential for persistent conflicts with domestic sheep and cattle that are grazed on both public and private lands in these areas.”

There are other areas of the state’s predator zone in a similar situation, including in areas in Lincoln, Park, and Fremont counties. Wolves have even hit herds in Natrona and Carbon counties.

The livestock losses in our region are occurring with relatively high hunting pressure on the wolf population, since wolves can be taken anytime and without a permit in the predator zone. As one young cattleman questioned, “Who thinks this is working, when you’ve got wolf hunting and calf losses are at 10%?”

Hunting pressure has made wolves in the predator zone smarter and more elusive, but it has not stopped wolves from killing livestock – as we all knew it wouldn’t. But it has made controlling problem wolves more difficult.

Without radio collars on wolf packs in the predator zone, we have no way to monitor wolf pack movements, so we lack a method of tracking problem wolves. When we did place a radio collar on a wolf on our place, she would be at our ranch one night, and 15-20 miles away the next night. We always know the wolves will return, but what we never know is when. Sometimes it’s three or four nights a week, but sometimes it’s only about once every three weeks.

What has now been proven is that the Wyoming legislative declaration of wolves outside the trophy game zone as a predatory species with no limits on take does little to resolve depredation problems. While hunters can legally kill wolves at any time in the predator zone, most have learned that it’s easier to talk about hunting wolves than actually succeed at killing one. Even when they succeed in harvesting a wolf, most often they are not targeting wolves involved in livestock depredations. 

Targeting depredating wolves requires a sustained effort by skilled professionals: USDA Wildlife Services, the professional animal damage control experts that wolf advocates love to hate. After our recent livestock producer meeting, Wildlife Services agreed to devote more ground time to our chronic damage area, and within a few days was able to trap and radio collar another female wolf – a member of another wolf pack living in the area. With this federal agency’s help, we hope to get more collars placed on wolves in the predator zone. Then we can respond to livestock depredations by taking not just any wolf, but the wolves responsible for livestock depredations.

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. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Casper photographer named PRCA Photographer of the Year

in Agriculture/arts and culture/News
2488

By Mike McCrimmon

A Casper photographer has been named the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association photographer of the year for a third time.

Dan Hubbell, owner of Hubbell Rodeo Photos, was named the winner of the award during ceremonies at the PRCA Awards Banquet in Las Vegas on Dec. 4.

Hubbell first won the award in 2000, its inaugural year, and again in 2018.

Hubbell’s rodeo photos today are known throughout the world, but he admitted that in his early days, he had a lot to learn.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “A guy (would be) riding a bucking horse and I’d just pull the trigger. I didn’t have any idea about timing or anything.”

Other rodeo photos provided the inspiration that led him to sharpen his skills, he said.

“Going into it after looking at images that you thought had impressed you, you kind of had an idea of what they liked,” he said. “For instance, of the calf roper roping a calf and then he’s stepping off, hanging in that stirrup and that horse is in the ground. You knew a bronc had to be stretched out. It was easier said than done sometimes.”

Helping Hubbell figure out what photos cowboys might like to see is Hubbell’s wife Linda, who runs the photography business.

“I enjoy meeting the contestants, talking to contestants, seeing what they like,” Linda said. “They tell me what kind of pictures they like, what they don’t like and I pass it on to him.”

The Hubbells are now taking pictures of rodeo cowboys whose parents were photographed competing in rodeos in past years, Linda said.

“You see the guys who he took pictures of and you start to see the kids come along,” she said. “And they think that’s pretty neat. They’re like ‘My dad had Hubbell photos on the wall and now I finally get a Hubbell photo.”

Hubbell’s photos are also popular with rodeo competitors who like to see shots of their past performances, she added.

“You have world champions who never bought a picture, they went to the (National Finals Rodeo” five or six times and never bought a picture,” she said. “Now all of a sudden, they’re at the end of their career and those pictures mean something.”

“You’ll have a buckle or a trophy here and there and a saddle, but the images, you can say ‘That’s the way I rode right there,’” Dan said.

Hubbell believes his interest in photography might have stemmed from his mother.

“Mom took pictures, a lot of them,” he said. “So that might be where it really started.”

On Bone Broth, and Coexistence

in Agriculture/Cat Urbigkit/Column
Guardian dogs
2455

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

The morning after Thanksgiving our house was once again filled with the smell of cooking turkey. But this time it was because we were boiling the carcass remains from the previous day’s feast. The bones are placed in the garbage once the broth is complete, but we pour the bone broth with chunks of meat in canning jars for reheating and pouring over the kibble of our working livestock guardian dogs on cold winter mornings.

Bones from a beef roast, leg of lamb, or leftover bird carcass all provide for delicious bone broth that can be used to make soup, but we like providing a nutrition boost for hard-working dogs and females raising pups.

livestock guardian dogs

On Thanksgiving we got the turkey in the oven before daylight and proceeded to outside chores at the first welcoming rays of light. The sheep were still on their bedground with their dogs, so we went across the ranch to check our game cameras, a vital part of our wolf monitoring program.

Fresh wolf tracks in new snow confirmed that wolves had paid an early-morning visit to our sheep range – their third nocturnal visit in a week. A resident female wolf that we helped radio collar a year ago has mostly kept to herself, but after we eliminated her mate a few months ago, she’s brought in another large male to the ranch, and their excursions are becoming more frequent. This male wolf’s track is large and distinct, and I suspect it’s the elusive male we had trouble with last fall and winter.

After we lost our two top guardian dogs, the male had become emboldened, and as I checked the cameras every morning, I would find his tracks atop my boot prints from the day before. As I tracked the wolf, he tracked me, marking and tearing up the ground where I walked, and he began coming to the rocks behind the house. He avoided the cameras, approaching them from behind, until one night in a fit of rage last November he attacked a camera, taking 85 selfies in the process.

That’s when we spooled up the guardian dogs, penned and fed the sheep, and set out wolf traps. After splitting up his pack, the male disappeared from our range. It had been quiet since I’d last come across his sign, but looking at those fresh tracks in the snow, it’s with a tense familiarity.

We follow the wolf tracks through the area our sheep flock grazed the day prior and see where the wolves and the guardian dogs each marked the same territorial boundary. The sheep and their dogs use the area during the day before being pushed toward the house every afternoon. The wolves wait until darkness falls across the range before moving in to explore where the sheep had spent the day.

Two nights ago, the wind-driven snow pushed the flock into the protected cover in the bottom of Sheep Creek. We tracked the wolves up the drainage to within a half-mile of the flock as they moved in response to the sheep movement below. The tracks in the snow left by the wolves, the guardians, and the sheep, lays out the reality of coexistence on the ground. The wolves are nearby, but are currently maintaining a certain distance.

It’s been a hard-fought coexistence. We deferred grazing this range one year and a pack of six wolves took over the range as their own. When we moved in the next year, the wolf pack come within a quarter-mile of the house and our penned sheep, causing massive brawls between the warring canine cousins. The wolves killed pronghorn antelope and mule deer within half-mile of the house, and the pack lounged atop the rocky ridge overlooking our headquarters, as our guardian dogs struggled to widen the territory of protected space. We had guardian dogs injured and killed, dozens of sheep injured and killed, and we’ve injured and killed wolves.

The sheep flock has its own guardian dogs that move with the flock as it grazes, as do the cattle, and we also have a guardian dog pack that controls the area around the ranch headquarters and pens. The wolves are no longer able to roam the ridge overlooking the house because that territory has been taken by the guardian dogs.

The biggest risk is to the sheep, with their smaller size and ever-changing grazing pattern. The livestock guardian dogs have managed to impose a restricted buffer of protection around the flock, but we know that any weakness of the dog pack – or any strengthening of the wolf pack –will cause this uneasy coexistence to end. 

So we prepare the bone broth, to boost our working dogs on cold winter mornings, to nourish them for whatever may lie ahead.

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. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Wyoming rodeo stock company named PRCA’s top stock contractor

in Agriculture/arts and culture/Community
2378

A rodeo stock company based near Riverton has been recognized by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association for providing consistently high quality bucking stock.

Powder River Rodeo recently won the PRCA’s Polaris Ranger Remuda Awards.

“It’s our ninth time for being nominated for stock contractor of the year,” said Lori Franzen, who founded the business with her husband Hank 35 years ago. “Which to me is one of the nicest honors you can get because you’re going against about 90 other contractors across the nation and to have the people vote you as one of the top five contractors is a huge honor.”

Powder River Rodeo has grown into a family operation from a two-person company.

“It was just us working from the beginning,” Franzen said. “We’d go out and round up pastures and haul in the cattle and the horses and the livestock to the rodeo (with) me timing and helping secretary and Hank running all ends of it. It’s just come to a culmination of now it is a huge family operation. We’re very proud of the fact that after 35 years, we have what we have.”

Powder River Rodeo is taking nine bucking horses and five bulls to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in December.

This Is Rural America

in Agriculture/Cat Urbigkit/Column
2391

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

A recent Twitter rant by a University of California Berkeley PhD student philosopher that claimed rural Americans “are bad people who have made bad life decisions” and should live “uncomfortable” lives and should have to pay more for rejecting efficient city life brought predictable condemnation.

The man later deleted the tweet with a comment that “my tone is way crasser and meaner than I like to think I am” but he never actually backed down from his rural condemnation. But this bruhaha got me thinking about rural life in America, and what that actually means. 

In western Wyoming’s version of rural America, what comes to mind is broad and dramatic landscapes with vast populations of wildlife and domestic livestock (the typical Wyoming pastoral scene) with a relatively small human population density.

The community’s components include a wide variety of people. We have sheep herders from Nepal, ranchers whose familiesmoved here from the Old Country more than a century ago,immigrant families from Mexico, and people who fled natural disasters or economic instability in other areas of America.

It’s people who develop routines based upon their own priorities and rules of life. Like the gentleman who insisted on getting up early every morning and making sure the steps to the rural medial clinic were kept free of snow. He didn’t work there, or get paid, but it was important to him that anyone needing medical attention shouldn’t be deterred by Wyoming snow.

And another gentleman who served as the community grave digger. He had a paying job, but this is just something he did for his community, his way of honoring the dead.

Or the thoughtful woman who started volunteering her time to help others in need, even if just cleaning up a yard, slapping on some paint, or chopping wood. Her kind acts drew others to her side, and a loose group now mobilizes to serve wherever there is need in the community.

And it’s the artist who donates her valuable work at a fundraiser to help cover the medical expenses for an accident victim. That she’s never met the victim isn’t even considered.

It’s the relatively new couple to the community who attend nearly every public event held in the county, simply to show support. They just show up, and they’ve become valued friends to all.

It’s the woman business owner on main street who knew that the teenaged girl preparing to put a winter coat on layaway was waiting tables and living on her own, so she set up the girl’s first charge account. And she knew that girl would honor her debt.

That kind and beautiful woman who cuts hair over at the salon is a former commercial airline stewardess who survived a horrific airplane crash but has found solace in the quiet of a rural countryside. That older man you meet on the ski slope has saved more lives and birthed more babies in his decades of practicing frontier medicine than most doctors working in municipal hospitals. That friendly retired couple spent their working lives as public servants, and still dress up as Santa and Mrs. Claus every Christmas.

That cattle rancher over there is a former nuclear engineer, that sheep rancher down the river has a master’s degree in education.That tiny older woman who lives alone spends hours playing her grand piano, and the suntanned woman down the road is a talented saddlemaker. That lean, bearded man cuts timber with a team of horses during the week, and volunteers for the youth hockey team on weekends. That grandmother is a retired nurse who volunteers at the bedside of the terminally ill – an earthly angel to the families she’s served. That weird-looking teenaged boy is an artist, and the goth-girl is a writer. That single mom is a small business entrepreneur and graphic designer. That single dad makes a living through hard physical labor during the day,and then takes his kids ice skating after school.

Those people in the grocery store are emergency medical technicians, fire fighters, law enforcement officers, teachers, search and rescue volunteers, military veterans, librarians, and coaches for our school sports teams.

That guy you see at a construction site is the same guy who flies a helicopter to pluck injured climbers off the face of the mountain. That guy moving cows along the road is part of the highly skilled team that is dropped in by the helicopter on a rope to stabilize the patient before evacuation. That guy you see always fishing out at the lake is also part of a swift-water rescue team that is deployed all over the region to recover those lost to the waters. That woman cheering on the local football team doesn’t have kids of her own, but is there at every game. She’s also the head of the search and rescue team.

These are the people who hitch up their stock trailers and drive towards wildfires to help their neighbors in rural subdivisions evacuate with their animals to safety. They keep their snowmachine trailers supplied with emergency equipment and go out into blizzards to find anyone lost in the wild after dark.

We’ve all heard about those lazy kids of the younger generation. Yet it was those kids that used the school shop to build a mobile library to serve the underserved areas of the county. The librarians living in town, and those folks over at the senior center, take books and meals to people who can’t leave their homes dotted around the countryside.

These are the people of rural America. They are the extra hands that suddenly appear when help is needed. These are the people who bring food as an expression of love, and who drop off books they think you’ll enjoy. These are people who weep with you, and for you, and who cheer you.

This is rural America.

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. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Midwest rancher recognized for years of rodeo

in Agriculture/arts and culture/Community
2384

A Midwest rancher and longtime rodeo cowboy has been inducted into the Rodeo Historical Society’s Hall of Fame.

Frank Shepperson, who capped his years in the rodeo with a world championship steer wrestling title in 1975, was inducted in ceremonies held Nov. 8 and 9 at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

Shepperson said he got involved in the rodeo while working on his family’s ranch.

“When you live on a ranch and you break horses for a living and you’re trying to get a little extra money, it just is natural,” he said. “My father also rodeoed.”

In his school years, Shepperson claimed the national high school title for bronc riding and went on to be a member of the University of Wyoming rodeo team in 1961, when the team won the national college championship.

Shepperson said it was his mother who encouraged him to compete in as many rodeo events as possible.

“When I was a freshman in high school, I filled out my (rodeo) entry form and showed it to my mother,” he said. “The high school rodeo was in Gillette, 90 miles away. She said ‘If we’re driving 90 miles for a damn rodeo, you better get in the bullriding, too.’ That’s the only thing I hadn’t entered.”

Shepperson said he was flattered to have been selected for induction into the Hall of Fame.

“I’m humbled and honored to join a lot of my friends and family and heroes that are already in this,” he said.

Working dogs to show their skills at Gillette’s Cam-Plex

in Agriculture/Travel
Sheep herding trials
“Frank,” a 5-year-old border collie owned by Wendy Auzqui, shows his stuff while herding. Frank will be one of the 40 to 50 dogs to put their sheep herding skills on display on Saturday during sheep herding trials at Gillette’s Cam-Plex. (Photo courtesy of Wendy Auzqui)
2352

The art of sheep herding will be on display in Gillette this weekend and the stars of the show will be man’s best friend.

From 40 to 50 dogs are expected to take part in sheep dog trials in an arena at Gillette’s Cam-Plex on Saturday and organizer Wendy Auzqui said those who attend will get a chance to see specially trained dogs show off their talents at herding sheep through a series of obstacles, guided only by audible commands from their handlers.

The dogs used for herding are bred for their ability to move livestock, said Auzqui, who owns Creekside Stockdogs in Clearmont.

“Your job is to put words to what the dog already knows so we can tell the dogs how to move the livestock,” said Auzqui, who owns Creekside Stockdogs in Clearmont. 

In the trials, three sheep will be put at one end of the arena, while the dog’s handler will stand at the other end, using words or whistles to give directions to the dog as it herds the sheep through a series of obstacles.

The dog that completes the task in the shortest time is the winner.

The event is open to any breed of dog, but the most commonly seen breed in trials is the border collie, Auzqui said.

“They’re high drive, intense and their intelligence level is one of the top three for dogs,” she said. “All that together, brains, intensity and the desire to work, is the thing that makes them amazing.”

Among the competitors at the trials, which will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., will be Auzqui’s own “Frank,” a 5-year-old border collie who this summer won the championship at the sheep herding trials at the Calgary Stampede in Canada.

Competitors will be divided into four divisions — an open class for any dog and handler, a division for novices, an intermediate class and a “nursery” division for dogs under the age of 3.

There is no admission for people who wish to watch the trials, which are sanctioned by the Mountain States Stock Dog Association.

For more information, visit Auzqui’s Facebook page or CreeksideStockdogs.com.

My Dog Is Not A Fur Baby

in Agriculture/Cat Urbigkit/Column
Livestock guardian dogs
2349

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Americans are animal lovers, so much that 95 percent of pet owners view their pets as family members. According to a survey from the American Pet Products Association, less than 15 percent of dogs in America sleep outside at night, and more than 70 percent of dogs are allowed to sleep in a person’s bed, according to another survey. In American society, dogs have become “fur babies” and humans now identify as “pet parents” – which is either a wonderful thing, or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. Animals are no longer simply our companions; they’ve become children in “interspecies families.” 

Although some people dress their dogs up in clothes, or bake cakes on dog birthdays, I don’t. These human-dependent dogs provide a great service to their humans, helping them to stay active while providing health benefits, social opportunities, and companionship. I also believe that dogs can help humans in creating a moral character, and in having relationships outside of self. Even though some dog breeds are not meant to survive on their own, there are dogs throughout the world that can survive in the wild, with or without human assistance. I live with a close relative of these dogs: our livestock guardians.

Personally, to consider myself a pet parent would be a disservice to my dogs. I refuse to anthromorphize the dog out of its noble fundamental existence as a dog. We love dogs for what they are; for their character, their enduring loyalty, their unconditional love, their ability to live in the moment, and for their keen instincts – for their basic doggedness. There is a special connection when gazing into the eyes of a dog that is looking directly at you, when you understand that you are looking into the depths to a remarkable soul. That connection rises to higher plane when you and dog then join together to complete a task, with the human doing human things, and the dog doing dog things, all toward the same end, and both KNOWING that we are engaged in an active partnership. This is the reason humankind has had a dog at its side for at least 20,000 years.

I have great love and affection for our dogs, but more importantly, I also have great respect for them – for their work ethic, bravery, intelligence, independence, (all characteristics for which I also curse at times) – and their willingness to demonstrate their affection to a lowly, unworthy beast like me. 

Every day I greet sunrise with a check on the guardian dogs, and having a 100-pound canine rush at me with wagging-tail enthusiasm is always a pleasure, no matter how many times its repeated. But usually within about three minutes, the excitement at the sight of me fades and the dogs return to their true calling: watching over their sheep, a lesser species that the dogs devote their lives to protecting. I, the mere mortal, am cast aside – unless and until I join the dogs with the sheep. Then the dogs walk alongside me, slowing to rub their bodies against my legs as they pass, allowing my fingers to caress their toplines from the top of the head to the end of the tail. They move back and forth, from me to the sheep, as we all move forward as one living mass.

These dogs are my working partners. I don’t believe I live in an interspecies family, but I do live and work in an interspecies world – a world that involves daily interactions among a mixture of wild and domestic animals and humans. We aren’t apart from nature; we are all components of one nature. We are all animals.

So don’t call my dog a fur baby. It’s a dog, and I don’t want to reform the dog into a human construct. If we’re evolving closer together, I’d much prefer that humans become more dog-like rather than the reverse.

When our dogs die, they don’t go to a rainbow bridge purgatory to wait for us, their beloved humans. These faithful creatures need not wait for anyone before taking their rightful place in a divine kingdom.

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. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

The Fallacy of Gold-Standard Predator Research

in Agriculture/Cat Urbigkit/Column/wildlife
sheep
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

As a frequent reader of new research on livestock production and carnivore conflicts, I am often reminded of the divide between researchers and practitioners. Papers will explain that research was conducted on sheep, without necessary information about those sheep, which practitioners (livestock producers) know will influence outcomes. For instance, we need to know not just the number of sheep involved, but breed, sex, age, breeding status, etc. because these cohorts may react differently in a given scenario.

Last fall, a new paper was published that cited the need for livestock protection to be more evidence-based, calling for more scientific papers to be based on “gold standards” for scientific research. A previous paper by some of the same co-authors went so far as to call for a halt to lethal control until such gold standards are achieved. Most of the only gold-standard studies cited by these authors are for non-lethal techniques, which are easier to study.

It would seem easy to support the call for “gold standards” but too often scientists fail to recognize the realities and complexities of field situations makes that unattainable, and the policy implications are significant. For example:

• Lethal versus non-lethal: 

Most studies assessing lethal versus non-lethal control of predators only acknowledge non-lethal control when undertaken or funded by government or NGOs. Rarely is there an acknowledgment or assessment of the various non-lethal measures already used by producers prior to lethal control, so it’s not really an accurate or fair assessment.

• Feasibility & Affordability: 

When livestock producers make management decisions, the feasibility and affordability of an action are foremost considerations, yet scientists expend little effort in this sort of assessment for field conditions. Having a great predator deterrent is of little use if it’s not affordable, or is only applicable in limited conditions.

• Gold means controlled:

Gold standard research usually takes place under captive-animal scenarios, where variables can be limited by researchers. This is in contrast to field conditions, where researchers would have little or no control of variables that influence outcomes. Researchers need to understand that difference, and that just because “gold” standards aren’t achieved doesn’t mean field research isn’t valid and useful. Researchers shouldn’t stretch to such broad condemnation as did those calling for a halt to lethal control because “gold” standards weren’t used in the studies they reviewed. That recommendation was simply the reflection of researcher bias.

• Motivations Differ:

Acknowledge the motivations and goals of researcher and livestock producers are not the same thing. Much research is being conducted to reduce conflicts between domestic livestock and wild predators, yet livestock producers are rarely included in study design, and livestock producers readily find flaws in implementing recommendations resulting from the research. Perhaps if livestock producers were more involved in study design, the results could be more readily adopted.

• Partnerships: 

The new paper refers to “livestock owners” only twice; once was to discredit the use of the livestock owner’s “perceived effectiveness” of an intervention, noting “widespread placebo effects, whereby patients feel better simply because they have participated.”

Although in an opening paragraph the authors stated, “Livestock owners, natural resource managers, and decision-makers each have an important role to play in research partnerships to collaboratively guide the testing of predator control interventions,” the paper substantially ignored the livestock owner value and role in such research.

• Animal husbandry ethics:

To achieve gold standard research in this field requires experiments that are ethically questionable. A true test of effectiveness of no-control, non-lethal control, and lethal-control would result in the deaths of domestic animals without intervention to protect them during the research. I, as a livestock producer, find that intolerable and would refuse to participate in such research that would result in pain, suffering and death for the animals I am responsible to tend.

Until researchers bridge the divide between the needs of scientists and the needs of practitioners, I see little room for progress. 

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. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

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