GREEN RIVER -- For decades, dogs have helped protect sheep herds in Wyoming and other Western states from the wily coyote and other predators.
But expanding populations of federally protected large carnivores over three decades are taking their toll, on both sheep and canines. The number of protection dogs killed by grizzly bears and gray wolves is increasing each year.
A longtime Sublette County ranching couple is researching and advocating the adoption of Old World predator control techniques in this new world of large-carnivore recovery.
Big Piney ranchers Jim and Cat Urbigkit spent October touring Europe and Central Asia interviewing livestock producers in those regions who use livestock protection dogs in areas of dense wolf and bear populations.
The couple visited numerous cattle, goat and sheep operations in Spain, Portugal, Bulgaria and Turkey during the monthlong trip that was sponsored by the Wyoming Wool Growers Association and the Wyoming Animal Damage Management Board.
"It was pretty amazing to get to go visit with livestock producers in other countries that have similar issues that we do," Cat Urbigkit said.
While agricultural producers in the western United States have the highest reported economic losses due to wildlife damage, producers in Spain, Turkey and Bulgaria have coexisted with wolves and bears for thousands of years, she said.
The pair conducted hundreds of interviews with producers in the regions.
"This knowledge transfer will be the beginning of our work, with the eventual goal of establishing a program to distribute livestock protection dogs more suited to facing wolves onto Western ranches and the northern Rockies," she said.
The Urbigkits have been researching Old World dog systems and have been raising livestock protection dogs for more than a decade. They and other area ranchers have been grappling with the reintroduction of gray wolves and expanding grizzly bear populations in western Wyoming. The Urbigkits also sell livestock guard dogs to other ranchers in the region.
"We've tried different breeds, and we have bonded our dogs to both domestic sheep and cattle ... we feel like we've been pretty successful," she said.
But as wolf populations have expanded out into grazing areas and allotments, more and more ranchers are seeing their dogs being killed by wolves, she said.
"We've had eight of the dogs we've raised killed by wolves ... we're mostly using Akbash, which is a great big white dog from Turkey, and Great Pyrenees, and they weight about 100 pounds and they're still getting killed," she said.
"So we thought, 'What is so different here ... why are we struggling so badly versus the rest of the world? What are they doing to be successful that we're not?'"
With that in mind, the couple began researching Old World methods of large carnivore control.
The pair co-wrote a paper -- which was published in the spring issue of the Sheep and Goat Research Journal -- that reviewed the use of livestock guard dogs in association with large carnivores in the Rocky Mountains.
The paper included a literature review that identified livestock protection dog breeds that may be more suitable for use around large carnivores such as gray wolves. It also looked at dog survival tools that may provide more protection for livestock guard dogs.
The Urbigkits' study identified the best livestock protection dog breeds as those that are canine-aggressive, so that the dogs are inclined to actively challenge wolves; and not human-aggressive, as many herds graze on public lands in the West.
With that data in hand, the couple set up tours and interviews with European and Central Asian producers who use many of the breeds identified in the paper.
While in Spain and Portugal, the Urbigkits visited with various cattle, sheep and goat producers with varying-sized outfits.
"The Spanish mastiffs is what they all used ... those dogs were absolutely amazing," Cat said.
"We watched this one big sheep outfit with about 1,000 head of ewes come through with 11 mastiffs guarding them, and each of them weighed about 150 pounds," she said.
"One interesting thing for us was that there was actually a radio-collared pack of wolves on that ranch that stayed with and around that sheep herd all the time, but rarely ever kill sheep," she said.
"Those dogs are so good and so keyed into what they're doing ... it was funny because here in Wyoming we look at separation ... we don't want wolves on our ranch, but those dogs just keep them at bay," she said.
In central Europe, the Urbigkits learned about the Karakachan dogs of Bulgaria, which have been known to chase wolves away from flocks for nearly a mile and a half.
"These dogs are smaller compared to the mastiffs, but extremely athletic and while used in both wolf and bear country, they're amazingly effective against bears," Cat said. "If the bear moves in, the dogs go at the bear as a pack of dogs, very fast, harassing the nose while others nip at its flank. I don't have any dog that's tough enough to nip at bears, so we were interested in them very much."
Their Turkish hosts favored the national dog of Turkey, a breed known as Kangala, as livestock guard dogs.
"It's a big, beautiful dog that we saw everywhere in Turkey ... they're street dogs, village dogs, herd dogs and wherever they have these dogs, they don't have wolves because they're competition for wolves," she said.
The couple also interviewed producers about spiked, anti-wolf dog collars commonly used in Central Asia and Europe.
"In Spain, they were made with leather and roofing nails set about an inch apart ... in Turkey, they are made of iron collars with sharp spikes," she said.
"We bought six of those spiked collars and brought them home and had a saddlemaker make a prototype so they can be manufactured for livestock producers," Cat said.
She said the collars will be used on a trial basis on several of the Urbigkits' livestock protection dogs.
"One concern we had is that the area we were in had no wire fences like we have that they might get tangled up in," Cat said. "So it might work best on those huge allotments with little or no fencing."
The couple plans to write a scientific paper for peer review about the spiked collars. "There's so little literature on them ... we probably have more hours of recordings about the collars than ever put together before," she said.
Southwest Wyoming bureau reporter Jeff Gearino can be reached at 307-875-5359 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.