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On Bone Broth, and Coexistence

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Agriculture
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.

Retired At One: The Story of Boo

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing/Agriculture
Boo a Wyoming livestock guardian dog
1593

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

I could hear the livestock guardian dogs raising hell that morning a little over a year ago when I stepped outside to begin to check how all the animals had faired during the night. The sheep had fled their bedground, and most of the dogs were half-crazed in their aggression directed toward the rocky ridge that rises just behind our house, so I knew that wolves had paid a nocturnal visit. I spotted six-month old Boo flat on her side in the sand along the ditch, just below the rocks. I called out to her, but she didn’t lift her head. I hurried over to her wounded, bleeding body, but Boo remained unmoving except for her naturally stubbed tail, which she wagged gently when I said her name. In the wee hours that summer morning, the wolves had caught young Boo and taken her down. 

I screamed for help, and within minutes Cass had scooped the limp dog up into his arms, cradling her in the back of the truck as we hurried toward the house. As we’ve done before, I called the vet clinic an hour away so they would be ready for our arrival.

We had high hopes for Boo’s survival. As the vet shaved her bloody mane, he noted that much of the blood in that section of her body wasn’t Boo’s: she had inflicted some bites on her attacker during the battle. But she had deep bite wounds to her neck, the top of both hips, and nasty scrapes on her underside. She was hypothermic, going into shock, so the team administered antibiotics and painkillers before placing her in warming blankets. They would clean out her wounds once she rested a little, giving the painkillers time to work.

Boo recovering on the living room couch after being wounded in a wolf attack in Sublette County. (Photo courtesy of Cat Urbigkit)
Boo recovering on the living room couch after being wounded in a wolf attack in Sublette County. (Photo by Cat Urbigkit.)

None of us believed her wounds were life-threatening that morning. But after I left, and the vet went to clean the wounds, he found just how severely the wolf had injured our brave Boo. It grabbed her neck in its powerful jaws, clamped down and shook her. The other dogs must have intervened, or else Boo wouldn’t have survived.

It would be a long 24 hours of waiting to learn if the damage was simply too much for Boo’s young body to bear. But while the vet clinic crew worked on her, Boo continued to wag that silly tail. When I went to see her late that afternoon, she woke up long enough to wag while I kissed her velvety nose. Sweet, sweet girl.

I went up the mountain that evening and sobbed, as only a mountain could cope with such sorrow. Later that night as I slept fitfully, the wolves returned to our pastures, but the remaining guardian dogs kept them from inflicting further damage. The wolves moved on, into the neighbor’s cattle herd, killing two calves.

Armed with wound-care instructions and medications from the vet, we brought Boo home the next afternoon, as her best chance for recovery would be in familiar surroundings. Jim and Cass took turns carrying Boo outside so she could relieve herself, and would then carry her back to the security of the house, gently placing her in a favored spot on the couch. We brought lambs into the yard so she could spend a few minutes each day interacting with those she loves best. The next week was a blur, filled with rough days for the young dog, and for us as the wolves made repeated night-time visits, trying to get into the sheep flock. We killed a few wolves but others remain, and I suppose there will always be wolves here.

Boo’s body eventually recovered from the attack, and she tried venturing back out with the range sheep, but she no longer had the heart for it. The attack had changed her, and she was afraid. 

Boo now spends her nights locked in the safety of a kennel, and ventures out during the day to the relative safety of the ranch yard where there are always a few sheep and guardian dog retirees. She plays joyfully in the ditch in the summer, and naps on the hay feedline set out for the sheep in the winter. She hunts gophers in the sagebrush and seems content enough with her new life, but I wonder if she’d be better off as a couch dog in a house full of children. Every now and then, we’ll see a flash of her old spunk, and it saddens me that such a young dog has chosen to retire from a life she loved. The wolves changed her.

Boo wasn’t the only dog injured by the wolves last year in our area of the southern Wind River Mountains. Two dogs were killed at a nearby shepherd’s camp, another had to be put down, and huge Bear-Bear fought nearly to death but survived. Two other dogs, our top two guardians, simply disappeared. But the pain is still too fresh for me to tell their story.

Livestock guardian dogs are noble beasts: gentle to weaker animals, yet fierce in their defense of others. Through the repeated wolf chaos of last year, the guardian dogs kept our sheep and cattle safe, even as our neighbors suffered losses. But it wasn’t easy, and it came at a cost.

There are increasing calls for ranchers to use non-lethal means such as livestock guardians to keep livestock safe from large carnivores, as if guardian animals are merely tools to be used. While our guardians are an excellent deterrent to predators, the coexistent relationship with wolves is not non-lethal. Sometimes protection comes at great cost: the death of a beloved working dog, the loss of a working partner.

Some may love the thought of wolves, but we loved Beyza, and Mos, and other dogs we’ve lost to the crushing jaws of wolves.

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.

Retiring An Old Dog

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing/Agriculture
Guardian sheep dog
1483


By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

We’ve spent the past four years trying to convince an old range dog to retire. Old Mama is a fine old livestock guardian dog that has traveled many, many miles with her flocks. She’s not much to look at, and her face and body carry many scars of battle, proof of her unwillingness to back down from a fight with any predator.

Born on the range to working guardians, she’s lived all her 13+ years of life there, migrating with the flocks from the sagebrush-covered low country in winter, to the high country of the Wind River Mountains as the flocks move for summer grazing. Her hard pawpads carried her over more than 200 miles of trail each year, moving slowly with the seasons.

As she aged, we gradually placed Old Mama with flocks following shorter trails, and finally stopped allowing her to trail to winter range four years ago. She’s adapted beautifully to every change; so long as she’s with sheep, she’s content.

One dark night in the fall of 2017, a pack of wolves attacked our sheep flock on its bedground, and Old Mama was one of three livestock guardian dogs injured in the brawl. With the help of a dedicated local veterinarian, Old Mama recovered from severe wounds, but the attack and her advancing age led to the decision to end her free-ranging days out with the main sheep flock. Old Mama had always enjoyed leading her flock out to graze for the day, sticking her tail straight into the air and stepping daintily as the sheep followed along. But those days were over.

By this point, Old Mama was still in great physical condition, but her teeth were so worn with age so she could no longer defend herself. The other guardian dogs would surely come to the defense of their comrade, but with wolves coming in so close to the sheep night pen, and confrontations escalating, I didn’t want to risk losing such a magnificent creature as Old Mama to wolves.

It was a tough decision to slip a leash over her neck and hold her back that cold morning, standing with the old dog as she watched her flock go forward without her. I turned her head and directed her into a large pen of lambs we’d kept from that spring, and Old Mama seemed happy enough to be with these youngsters.

There are always at least a few sheep around the ranch headquarters, and in the wintertime we feed hay nearby, so Old Mama always has access to the thing she loves most – her sheep. Last winter, Old Mama stayed close to the house, sometimes seeking shelter in the barn, but more often than not sleeping in the haystack next to the flock’s night pen.

Old Mama is going deaf, she can’t see well, and now she’s a little wobbly on her feet. It’s lambing season again, and I’ve got a small pen of orphan lambs for her to keep company.

One afternoon last week, I looked out to see a livestock guardian dog leaving the headquarters, headed into our lambing pasture. The dogs guarding the lambing flock burst into action, barking and racing to face the intruder, but then breaking into excited body wiggles when they saw the grand old girl was once again joining the flock. Everyone in our family cheered for the old dog and her determination.

Old Mama’s body may be weakening, but she still has a booming bark that broadcasts warnings to tell predators to stay away. She parked herself in the middle of the flock, staying close to a ewe that gave birth later that night. The other guardian dogs kept a respectful distance, knowing that this elderly guardian belongs wherever she wants. She’s earned this range.

Once the ewe moved off with her newborn lambs the next morning, Old Mama began her slow journey back to headquarters, where her new crop of orphan lambs was waiting. She spent the night with these wee ones, then set out again in her slow lumber for the lambing flock.

This noble old dog has earned the right to make her own decisions. We’ll try to minimize her risk of injury, but in the end, she’ll decide how she wants to leave this life. At the very least, we owe her that.

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.

Golden Problems, Working Solutions

in Uncategorized
Golden eagle talons.
1342

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Imagine being a commercial sheep producer in Wyoming and losing 15 percent of your annual lamb crop to a federally protected predator. Then as each year passes, your livestock losses increase as more of those federally protected predators concentrate depredations on your flocks. The losses climb so that fully half of your lamb crop is lost to these predators. 

That’s the reality for Johnson County’s Tommy Moore of Moore Ranch Livestock, which lost half of its lambs to golden eagles last year. The Moore outfit had about 200 lambs born earlier this year, but 27 lambs are left alive at this point, with 80 percent of that death loss due to golden eagles.

It’s not a sustainable situation and everyone knowledgeable about this case understands that.

That’s why Moore has teamed up with the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, and Mike Barker of the International Eagle Austringers Association (a group of eagle falconers) to organize a coordinated effort to get some of the depredating golden eagles off his ranch. That work has drawn in several federal agencies, the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, the North American Falconers Association, numerous volunteer falconers and scientists from across the country, and U.S. Senator John Barrasso. 

Barrasso – quietly and successfully – amended the federal eagle protection act last fall to require the director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to “use the most expeditious procedure practicable to process and administer permits” for the take of depredating eagles.[

“That really helped to push this through,” Barker said. 

A golden eagle in flight in western Wyoming.
A golden eagle feeds on a dead pronghorn antelope in Wyoming. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)

Prior to a mid-1970s study documenting severe eagle depredation on Montana lambing grounds, the public (and some wildlife agencies) were skeptical at rancher claims of eagle depredations.

Bart O’Gara of the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit documented a similar kill scenario to the Moore’s Johnson County ranch on two Dillon, Montana-area ranches in the 1970s. In one six-hour period, O’Gara found 15 fresh eagle kills on one ranch, and that year, federal officials removed 145 golden eagles from the two ranches, which suffered losses totaling 76% of their lamb crop. Over a period covering three springs, nearly 250 golden eagles were removed from the ranches and depredations began to decline.[

With USDA Wildlife Services confirming the eagle depredations on his Wyoming ranch, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued Moore a depredation permit allowing the removal of two eagles. Moore agreed to work with the International Eagle Austringers Association so that the two eagles removed pursuant to his permit would be used for falconry, while other eagles that are captured are to be relocated away from the area.

A total of 27 eagle falconers applied to trap a golden eagle, and two names were drawn, including lucky man Barker and another falconer from New Mexico. Within six days, the trapping team captured a male eagle for the New Mexico falconer, and three days later, caught a female eagle for Barker. Both are immature golden eagles, so they were not part of the breeding population.

Now that two eagles have been removed from the population under the depredation permit, all other eagles captured on the ranch during the 90-day term of the permit will be relocated away from the ranch. Two other eagles have already been relocated, and live trapping efforts continue.

A golden eagle feeds on a dead pronghorn antelope in Wyoming.
A golden eagle in flight in western Wyoming. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)

Similar efforts to stop eagle depredations on sheep have been successful in South Dakota. Other tactics, such as using scare devices, are generally viewed as ineffective at deterring eagle depredation on range sheep operations.

Eagle depredation on domestic sheep isn’t limited to newborn lambs, as Moore points out. They also attack and kill adult sheep and antelope. Golden eagles also killed a number of Moore’s replacement ewe lambs (weighing about 100 pounds) last fall. For the benefit of those not involved in the domestic sheep business, I’ll add that in my view, replacement ewe lambs are the future of any family sheep outfit.

While the eagle problem on the Moore ranch varies with the weather and with the season, the ranch experienced heavy damage in February (before his depredation permit was issued), and Moore expects problems to increase again this fall, if last year’s pattern is any indication.

The FWS has been hesitant to allow the removal of golden eagles, only allowing up to six goldens to be taken for falconry nationwide, so nearly all the golden eagles used for falconry in the United States were captured in the wilds of Wyoming. But FWS has not allowed any eagles to be taken from the wild since 2011 – until Barrasso pushed through the amendment to the eagle act last fall, and wool growers teamed up with falconers to push for action in Johnson County.

The wool growers/falconry partnership will continue, with numerous volunteer citizen scientists and falconers arriving on lambing grounds in other regions of the state in the coming days to monitor eagle depredations on lambs through the month of June. They will assist USDA Wildlife Services in confirming eagle depredations where problems are reported, which will set the stage for more ranchers to follow Moore’s lead in applying for depredation permits and requesting that falconers be allowed to trap and remove eagles from depredation areas.

The end result is that rather than pushing another domestic sheep producer out of business, the Moore family can continue their ranching heritage, and problem eagles will be removed from the wild, to hunt with their falconry advocates for decades to come.

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.[

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