Livestock Guardian Dogs and Predator Friendly Ranching

A Livestock Guardian Dog back at the barn with her flock

“So have you had success with your guard dogs?” I asked Leo Barthelmess. Robin and I stood in the fading light of a too-long, too-hot day, happy to see the evening come, next to the old one-room schoolhouse where we would be spending the night. Our horses grazed amid the playground equipment, eagerly seeking out the overgrown clumps of alfalfa scattered throughout the former lawn. Too curious to hold back my questions until the morning, I was pestering him about the dynamics of his 18 to 20 Livestock Guardian Dogs that watch over the sheep on his place. They work in teams of up to 8 dogs, each team protecting hundreds of sheep out on open range. “Well, without the dogs we couldn’t run sheep, and with them we can, so I’d say they’ve worked pretty well for us,” he told me. We looked out over the vast grasslands where Leo, his wife, and brother have run sheep and cattle for decades. Essentially, he explained, keeping the dogs has successfully reduced predation, at least to the point where it is possible to run sheep again. There is still some loss every year, particularly around lambing, and some years depredation is still significant, but now it is manageable. Before they brought in guard dogs, losses from predation made running sheep economically impossible.

The old Tallow Creek School house, where Leo Barthelmess let us spend a few nights on his family’s sheep and cattle ranch. Our horses grazed in the playground.

Sheep once grazed most of the country we rode through. Now nearly every ranch only runs cattle. Everyone we talked to suggested the same reason for this shift – just too many predators to run sheep now, they said. While eagles and mountain lions take their share, the biggest problem is usually attributed to coyotes. The coyote numbers in much of the Northern Great Plains have climbed steadily over everyone’s living memory. We heard their calls often, though we only saw two coyotes over the three months we were on the road.

There are a few reasons why cattle ranchers might want to run sheep. By running both cattle and sheep, ranchers can diversify their business and reduce their exposure to fluctuations in the beef, lamb, and wool markets. They can also more efficiently utilize the forage on their land because sheep tend to prefer leafy shrubs and forbs and cattle tend to prefer grasses. Sheep can also be a huge help when dealing with certain invasive noxious weeds. For a month Robin and I rode our horses along the Powder River, where the bottomlands are heavily infested with leafy spurge, a plant poisonous to cattle and horses but tolerated by sheep. Some ranchers are finding sheep to be helpful in utilizing the otherwise ruined pastures, and that by grazing the aggressive weed, the sheep help give native plants a chance to compete. Running sheep can help ranchers stay in business, which is good for grasslands threatened by development and plow-up. Ranchers cannot run sheep profitably, however, if predation losses are too high.

Leafy Spurge, a noxious weed poisonus to cattle and horses, is a serious problem along much of the Powder River. Sheep can be used to mitigate the impacts of the weed, if they can be protected from predators.
Leading the horses through a thick patch of Leafy Spurge on the banks of the Yellowstone River. It was sometimes challenging to find areas for grazing the horses that were close to the water and weed free. Usually we settled for an area with a little spurge, and hoped that the horses would avoid eating so much of it to make them sick.
Unlike horses and cattle, sheep can eat leafy spurge, making use of otherwise underutilized pastures and helping to suppress the weed’s dominance.

There was a time when predator numbers throughout the Northern Great Plains were extremely low. Between the huge numbers of homesteaders that once filled the prairie like exurban-ranchettes, a thriving fur trade, government sponsored bounties and predator control officers lacing animal carcasses with poisons, even coyote numbers were decimated. The sheep industry flourished at one time with Irish and Basque shepherds building huge flocks on the open range. Where grizzlies and wolves had been killed off, shepherds and homesteaders waged war on the coyotes and “chicken hawks” that took their lambs. The ranchers’ only defenses against the predators were poison, traps, and guns that they used liberally to defend their sheep. Since the rural population has readjusted to the realities of the climate, certain poisons were banned, and the Endangered Species Act was created, many predators have rebounded dramatically.

A prairie falcon with its kill. Some raptor populations have rebounded across the Northern Great Plains, though all of them are threatened by loss and fragmentation of habitat. The poisons once used to eliminate coyotes also killed off huge numbers of non-target species, including some raptors. Widespread shooting of eagles, hawks, and falcons, was also common amongst homesteaders.

The return of some predators to the prairie is cause for celebration. All eagles, hawks and falcons are now protected under federal law, and many cherish their flight above the prairie. The grasslands soundscape would be deeply impoverished without the wild yipping and bizarre cackling of coyotes. Ecologically, by keeping the rodent and rabbit populations in check, a moderate predator population helps stabilize population explosions of those tiny but voracious grazers. On the other hand, an overpopulation of predators, just like an overpopulation of herbivores or an overpopulation of noxious weeds, can be unhealthy for the ecosystem. If there were a way to make ranching profitable and ecosystems balanced without once again totally annihilating these predators, it would be a huge win for grasslands, keeping the land undeveloped, unplowed, and ecologically healthy.

There was one tool that the immigrant shepherds left behind in the old world: Their guard dogs. From the late 1800s to the late 1900’s, Livestock Guardian Dogs were not a part of the American rancher’s predator control repertoire. Slowly, over the last several decades, more and more people have been importing the dogs, breeding them locally, and experimenting with the their use. They are gaining popularity, and that’s good for both the sheep and the predators, and by extension the ranchers and the environment.

Riding past flocks of sheep huddled under the shade of a few trees or an old piece of farm equipment, there was often a guard dog tucked in amongst them, panting with the lambs in the heat of the day. It was hard to tell them apart from a distance, fighting for the shade, but if we rode close enough the dog would walk out in front, sizing us up and staring us down, barking a great deep bark if we drew any closer.

Liam, an adolesent Livestock Guardian Dog, resting in the shade with a few of the lambs he protected. He barked and postured bravely for such a young dog when we first rode by, but after his owner introduced us to him, he melted into a squirmy puppy.

Livestock Guardian Dogs have been bred over generations to instinctively protect the livestock they bond with from wild predators, stray dogs, and thieves. Unlike herding dogs, they are not trained to help move the livestock. They are imprinted on the livestock from a young age, and live with the livestock at all times, working independently from human commands and directions. They are trained to be respectful and submissive to their handlers, but not to perform tasks the way a herding dog is. There are many breeds of livestock guardian dogs, from the huge white Great Pyrenees, Akbash, and Komondor, to the Anatolian Shepherd Dogs, the Spanish Mastiff, Kangal Dog, Maremma Sheepdog and Sarplaninac. The breeds have different traits, but largely work in the same manner. They live independently from humans with the livestock, eat at feeding stations near the flock, and patrol the area for predators. Some breeds and individuals tend to stay close to the livestock, barking as a warning to any predators and only engaging a predator if it actively attacks one of its flock. Others have been bred to more actively chase away or kill predators that come too close to their flock.

While their ancestors were bred to protect flocks from marauding thieves and unscrupulous neighbors, they generally pose no threat to passersby, and so I wasn’t too worried for our safety when we passed guard dogs. If we left their sheep alone, I was confident the guard dogs would leave us alone, only barking to warn us of their presence. On the other hand, I was a little nervous about our dog Winnie.

People we met on the trail warned us to keep our dog close by because their guard dogs might kill her if she was alone. “It’s happened before” they told us regretfully. Livestock Guardian Dogs instinctively protect their flocks from stray dogs. That is usually a good thing. Behind wild predators, stray dogs are the second leading cause of livestock loss in the United States. As it was, we kept a close watch on Winnie, our black German Shepard cross that looks a little more wolfish than might be good for her, and learned to heighten our vigilance whenever we saw a flock of sheep down the road. Luckily, the only guard dogs we came across unaccompanied by their owners were young and too submissive and playful to pose a real threat to Winnie. It turned out that the biggest injury we sustained from a guard dog was the theft of a freshly baked slice of banana bread stolen from our camp by a friendly dog named Liam. Seeing as we were sleeping in his tractor shed and charging our camera batteries in his sheep’s manger, we really couldn’t blame him.

Robin working on some writing in the tractor barn where Liam later helped himself to some Banana bread.

As consumers, one of the steps we can take to help with the stewardship of our country’s prairies is to buy products that help support the healthy management of grasslands. We can buy grass-raised meat from animals finished on pasture and range, cutting out dependence on feedlots and monocultures of corn that replace diverse native prairie. Buying Organic and All Natural certified products can also reduce certain negative impacts of conventional agricultural systems on native prairie ecosystems. Another option is just beginning to make its way onto grocery store shelves in the form of products labeled “Predator Friendly” or “Certified Wildlife Friendly.” These new certifications encourage and acknowledge ranchers for their use of non-lethal predator control methods, which often include the use of livestock guardian dogs. Dogs are usually used in conjunction with other practices, such as corralling livestock at night, use of electric fences, moving livestock away from high-conflict areas at certain times of year (such as a pasture near a wolf den), or having herders with the livestock. Of course, many ranchers will choose to use wildlife friendly practice such as guard dogs and not seek certification, but seeking out certification may be of interest to others.

Take a look at Louise Liebenberg’s blog, which helps illuminate some of the challenges and rewards of working with Livestock Guradian dogs and operating as a certified Predator Friendly ranch.

While certification does not currently command high premiums, if demand for “wildlife friendly” products grows with consumer awareness of the label, the opportunity for producers to capitalize on the certification could be significant. More producers might also be willing to join the label if there was more flexibility allowing for responsible predator population reduction when deemed appropriate, as part of an integrated predator management program. As producers, even if certification does not make sense for your operation, integrating livestock guardian dogs into your management strategy might.

Another young pup we met, just learning the ropes.
This puppy got along with our dog Winnie, but when the older dogs came by to check on things, we decided it would be best to keep Winnie safely behind a fence in the barn, just in case.
Another option for predator friendly livestock protection, Guard Donkeys instinctively chase and attack predators and stray dogs as well. Although we didn’t see any on our ride, Llamas can be used in the same way.
Getting a good drink from the trough

Grass, Wind, And Light

“There will be more grass, wind, and light.”


This is what Sebastian told me in order to mollify any further fretting on my part over leaving our camera in the trunk of the car as we waded our way through 8 foot tall rustling tall grass prairie in Northern Oklahoma. The wind was working the whole hillside into a frenzy— a riot of autumn-cured grasses swooshed this way and that. The light caught the Little Bluestem just so, highlighting each individual blonde floret against an undulating backdrop of red all mixed up in ochre and maroon—the stalks of the taller big bluestem. Big surges of wind lifted up milkweed seeds as they were released from their shell-like pods. Gossamer strands of spider web whipped around in the wind with all the rest of it.



DSC_6888          DSC_7414 - Version 2DSC_7174

That phrase, “there will be more grass, wind, and light,” was stuck in my head for the remainder of our trip as we zigzagged our way across the Great Plains. We were ground checking the route we plan to traverse on horseback this summer. The success of our upcoming trip, which aims to increase public awareness of our critically threatened grasslands, relies upon the assumption that there will, indeed, be more grass, wind, and, light.

Well, wind and light, yes, I imagine there will be endless amounts of wind and light to come. Although, just 80 or so years back, during the height of the dust bowl, the sun was reported to have been blotted out by soil swept up from fields that, plowed and exposed, were left for the sweeping. One of the main catalysts for these gargantuan dust storms, coupled with drought, was the European-style farming techniques employed by pioneers that came to settle “the last great west.” Aided by legislation designed to promote western settlement and encouraged by the prospect of dirt-cheap land, settlers came to the Great Plains to capitalize on the opportunities presented by this vast frontier. The arrival of European-American settlers inaugurated a massive transformation of the Great Plains landscape. As settlers pushed west, the native prairie was plowed and broken, initiating a process that would later lead to the near elimination of North American grasslands. Deep plowing of virgin topsoil displaced native prairie grasses that traditionally trap soil and moisture in their deep root systems. The soil, thus unanchored, was swept up in clouds that literally blackened the skies.

Loss of topsoil paved the way for the ecological and economic disaster of the dust bowl. Despite widespread adoption of soil conservation practices following the “dirty thirties,” the problem of soil loss has only increased since then. Some practices such as contour plantings, strip cropping, and, recently, no-till agriculture, reduce erosion on a per acre basis, but none completely stop or reverse the loss of soil. The total amount of soil lost per year in the United States has likely increased since the ‘30’s. In his New Roots for Agriculture, Wes Jackson points out that studies indicate our annual soil loss is greater now by at least 25% than in the Dust Bowl years.[1] Under natural conditions it’s estimated to take between 300-1,000[2][3][4] years to build one inch of topsoil.[5] The majority of the cropland in the U.S. isn’t building soil, but losing it. An Iowa State University report published in 1972 study tells us that we lose over 4 billion tons of topsoil each year, or the equivalent to enough soil to load a train 633,000 miles long. That’s long enough to stretch to the moon and back and towards the moon again, or, if you prefer, to wrap around the planet 24 times.[6]  That is topsoil lost in the U.S. alone.

With the advent of synthetic fertilizers and the large-scale mechanization of farming, more land than ever before is in crop, the majority of which is planted in annual monocultures that replace the complex prairie ecosystem. As smaller fields are consolidated into larger ones the prairie remnants once protected by fence lines, right of ways, ditches, and hedgerows are plowed under. It’s easy to intimate that, on the large-scale, we haven’t exactly improved our situation since the ‘30’s; indeed, we’ve taken a turn for the worse. Last month Southeastern Colorado and the panhandle of Oklahoma saw dust storms on par with those that ravaged the country 80 years ago. It’s conceivable, if not probable, that we could go through the paces of a second dust bowl in the years to come, which would blot out the light that Sebastian was so insistent we’d see more of. But shorthand, yes, there will be more light; I’ll grant him that.

And wind. We need not look beyond the recent 22-fold increase in the U.S.’s installed wind-energy capacity since 2000 to confirm that there will be more wind.[7] Ten of the top twelve states in wind development potential are located within the Great Plains alone.[8] Hundreds of thousands of acres of land are being scouted, leased, and bought by wind-energy developers. These numbers will only increase as we continue to develop and expand alternatives to non-renewable energy.

But grass! Whether or not there will be more of that is a far more interesting question, the answer to which is less certain, less of a given. Once you start digging into that question and into the landscape that teeters on the edge of its answer, you begin to walk the fine line that exists between hard facts and hope. What I mean is, you are confronted with the statistics surrounding the decimation of the prairie and the species that were once abundant in it; on the other side of the spectrum you see its determined resilience and take heart in the teeming life it supports – its insistence upon survival despite all of the odds piled against it. When you look at this side of the argument, you develop a fragile sense of hope that the future of the prairie is not as bleak as the numbers suggest.

At one moment you’re sure there’s nothing for it, that we have done too much, dug too deep, and that the price we will pay for ‘progress’ and production is the land itself, the same land that enables these processes and has brought us such astonishing abundance. The estimates of remaining intact prairie in the U.S. range from 5 to 20%.[9] Many estimates of the remaining tallgrass prairie are fractions of 1%. You soon realize that even the remaining ‘intact’ tracts of prairie, such as the one in Oklahoma pictured above, are not intact at all, if by intact you mean whole, unbroken, or unaltered, as its definition suggests. For though these ‘intact’ remnants of prairie managed for conservation may host herds of reintroduced bison, the herds of elk that used to roam across them, with few exceptions, are gone. The Plains grizzlies and the gray wolves that hunted these herds are also gone. The black footed ferrets that used to move freely across these landscapes are headed towards the cliff of extinction. We’ve poisoned the prairie dogs that the black footed ferrets depend on, and have destroyed the vast majority of their habitat. Black-tailed prairie dogs now occupy 2% of their former range.[10] Many of the grassland birds that used to shower the prairie in song are plunging towards collapse.

The agricultural fields that border the ‘intact’ tracts of prairie render them scattered islands isolated to varying degrees from their nearest neighbors. The herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers used often disrupt the soil microbiology and cause rampant problems with the health of our water (and those that drink from it). We are draining the Ogallala aquifer at a rate far greater than its water is able to replenish. We’ve dammed or channelized nearly every single major river that runs across the Great Plains. Fifteen dams impound the main stem of the Missouri river, with hundreds more on its tributaries. This, along with siltification, has seriously compromised fish populations and has endangered at least six fish species, including the pallid sturgeon. We’ve plowed under most of the soil and are watching it wash or blow away at a rate far faster than it can regenerate. The fraction of the tracts of prairie that remain unplowed do not support the ‘intact’ ecosystems they once did. This landscape is altered.

At the exact moment you are contemplating what appears to be this full-throttle destruction of the prairie, you inevitably see a  hawk cut across its expansive skies.  So you make a bargain with hope and insist that these creatures are not on their way out. As Sebastian and I wound our way west along the back roads, it seemed like there was a bird of prey on every power line post we passed, waiting for its catch. We heard the cacophony of Canada geese honking and chattering as they migrated by starlight through the night. We heard the low hoot of owls cut across a chilly October night, and as the sun spilled into our tent in the early mornings, so too did the most clear and melodic birdsong, beckoning in the first light of day. We watched a flock of migrating American white pelicans, enormous birds with a 9-foot wingspan, rise in thermals, gaining loft as they made their way south, wings flashing silver then black as they spiraled upwards. We saw the opened beak of meadowlark after meadowlark as it called out its song from its post on barbed wire. We saw a pair of nesting bald eagles take turns showing off over Oklahoma Lake and eastern blue birds dart and surge and plunge from power lines to the tops of cottonwood trees and back. We watched coots and cormorants push their way through still waters, oblivious to the hum of the interstate alongside their ponds. We saw a loggerhead shrike, whose characteristic of piercing its prey on barbed wire, or if handy, on thorns, and then adorning it with bird bills and feathers to attract a mate, never ceases to amuse me.

DSC_7002 - Version 2Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna)

DSC_7081 - Version 2Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

DSC_7060Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus)

DSC_7044 - Version 2Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna)

DSC_7272Cormorant (Phalacrocorax sp.)

DSC_7560Foreground: Red Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis); Background: American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

We encountered what seemed to be this abundance, this perseverance against all the odds we’ve piled against these birds: plowing under the grasses where they nest, flooding the soil and water they depend on with fertilizers and pesticides, planting corn or soy or suburbs upon nearly every last inch of their habitat, overgrazing grasses they depend upon to feed an exploding population… Seeing this push for life, this determination and insistence upon survival, the tilt and sway of wings cut across an expansive sky, birdsong flood across the slope of hills and the endless plane of horizon—it is heartening yes. It is promising, yes. It is beautiful, yes. And also, it is heartbreaking.

Look at the plummeting number of birds that depend on the prairie, including many of those that we saw on our drive, and especially those that we didn’t see, and you’ll have reason to pause. The populations of some of the birds we saw, including the pelicans, Canada geese, and red-tail hawks, have stable or even increasing populations thanks to their adaptability, and, in part, to conservation measures taken. The majority of the birds that depend on the prairie, however, have populations that have nose-dived in the last 60 years. Today, the population of around 80 percent of all grassland birds is in decline. The eastern meadowlark’s population has plunged by 71% in the last 40 years[11] and is decreasing at a steady rate of 2% each year.[12] Loggerhead shrikes populations have declined by 72%. The Nature Conservancy lists it as being extirpated from most of the Northeast, and nearly extirpated from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.[13] Eagle populations will face additional pressure following a recent Interior Department rule that will allow 5-30-year permits for wind farms to accidentally kill or injure bald and golden eagles.

Many of the grassland birds that were once common in the plains were eerily absent from our bird count during the drive. We didn’t see any grasshopper sparrows. Bird surveys indicate their populations have declined by 65%[15] and are declining at a rate of 6% per year in parts of their range. Bobolink populations are steadily declining. They spend their non-breeding season on South American grasslands east of the Andes, and are thought to have one of the longest migrations of any New World songbird, traveling some 12,500 miles annually. Thanks to drought, inappropriate water and beach management, gas/oil industry dredging operations, and development, only 8,000 adult piping plovers remain in the wild.[16] The list of shrinking grassland bird populations goes on and on and on.

Scrolling down the population estimates of grassland birds, you realize that, like the small stands of native prairie scattered throughout the fields and rangeland, we are witnessing a remnant, a relic of species whose future is as improbable as the powerful surge of song bellowing forth from such a small body. When confronted with this, hope is a tricky force to get behind.

And yet, when you stand in the prairie that is left, give yourself to its color and sounds: the buzzing of its grasshoppers, the bright flash of wings, the chirps and melodies inundating the space between swaying grasses, and the splash of yellow on a meadowlark’s breast, it seems impossible not to place your hope in it. When you stand in a tract of tallgrass prairie, something happens. Your brooding and your worry sink into the soil and the roots that run deeper than the grasses are tall and you settle. Against all odds, you place your hope in it. And in so doing you place your hope in us. In our responsibility to see this landscape and home into future generations, though it will never again be ‘intact.’ As Michael Forsberg puts it, “Hope looks forward.” It is his hope, and mine, and that of countless others who cherish the prairie and its teeming life that “someday, future generations will thank us for the courage we had and the efforts we made, each in our own way, to preserve and restore these treasures for their future. We certainly owe it to them, we owe it to the land and its wild inhabitants, and ultimately, we owe it to ourselves.”[17]  I hope that the prairie will indeed see unending grass, wind, and light.


[1] Jackson, Wes. New Roots for Agriculture. 1980. New Point Press. Berkeley, California. 75.
[2] H.H. Bennett, 1939. Soil Conservation, McGraw Hill, NY.
[3] A.F. Gustafson, 1937. Conservation of the Soil, McGraw Hill, NY.
[4] O. Olivers, 1971. Natural Resource Conservation: An ecological approach, Macmillan, NY.
[5] N. Hudson, 1971. Soil Conservation, Cornell Univ. Press. Ithaca, NY.
[6] Jackson, Wes. New Roots for Agriculture. 1980. New Point Press. Berkeley, California. 17.
[7] U.S. Gov. Energy Dept. “Energy Dept. Reports: U.S. Wind Energy Production and Manufacturing Reaches Record Highs.” 2013. 12/23/13.
[8]Wishart, David. “Settling an Unsettled Land.” The Great Plains. Forsberg, Michael. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. 28.
[9] “Grassland Threats.” National Geographic. 2013. 2/12/2014.
[10] Wishart, David. “Settling an Unsettled Land.” The Great Plains. Forsberg, Michael. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. 38.
[11] Partners in Flight Science Committee 2013. Population Estimates Database, version 2013. Available at Accessed on 12/27/13.
[12] J.R. Sauer, J.E. Hines, and J. Fallon, “The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis, 1966-2005.” (Laurel USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, June 2, 2006.)
[13] The Nature Conservancy. 1999. Natural Heritage Central Databases. An electronic database on plants and animals. Arlington, VA.
[14] Species factsheet: Anthus spragueii. BirdLife International. 2014. 2/12/2014.
[15] Savignac, Carl; Jobin, Benoit; Falardeau, Gilles. “Status of the Grasshopper Sparrow in Quebec.”  Environment Canada. 2011. 2/12/14.
[16]Beating the Odds: A Year in the Life of a Piping Plover.” Audubon. 2/12/14.
[17] Forsberg, Michael. “The Roots of Hope.” The Great Plains. Forsberg, Michael. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. 11.

Indiegogo campaign Launched!


We’re excited to announce that starting TODAY, for the first time you’ll be able to help make our project a reality by visiting our newly launched Indigogo campaign! Give a little, Give a lot, whatever support you can share will be incredibly appreciated. And remember, pass it along to your friends and families, co-workers, your boss, your nanny and your dog’s veterinarian. We’ve only got THIRTY DAYS to go, so don’t wait! thanks so much for all the support! Check it out:

Artwork by Eleanor Anderson (