As we drive thru the mountains of southeast Idaho, sometimes we see these large white dogs near sheep herds that are grazing in our National Forest. These dogs have been used as guard dogs for livestock for centuries going back to Roman times BC and in the Pyrenees Mountains of southern France and northern Spain. Seeing them with the sheep emotes a romantic notion of the lamb laying with the lion, the world at peace and all is well as the noble dog guards its flock. Surely it is rewarded with love and care.
While there are publications on proper training and care of these animals such as in The Shepherd Magazine, what we learn regarding the actual situation is different. I first became aware of what I will call the “Plight of the Pyrenees” last year through contact with our local animal shelter and their work. If you visit the website of Animals Need Help in Bear Lake County, you will learn of the incredible effort these people are carrying out to rescue and care for these beautiful dogs then adopt them out. Their stories of abandoned families and starving pups and the weeks of work to locate and capture the abandoned dogs extending into winter are compelling. As they told me these stories I was greatly saddened to learn of the treatment of the dogs at the hands of their owners, sheep permittees on the Caribou National Forest.
People may not be aware of the situation with sheep grazing on our public lands. Here in the southeast Idaho area, hundreds of thousands of acres are annually grazed by domestic sheep in bands of hundreds to thousands of animals. You will sometimes see the herders, their horses, Pyrenees and sheep camps along some of the highways or Forest roads. One of the side effects or costs of this livestock grazing on our National Forest and BLM lands is the associated predator control and killing of wild animals such as bears, wolves, mountain lions and coyotes. Other costs include watershed degradation, erosion, stream damage, compromised fisheries, displaced deer and elk, and the compromising of the habitat they need in summer and winter. For those of us who love wild places and wildlife, this domestication of the landscape is a huge cost. The Pyrenees is one tool sheep permittees use to protect their sheep from predators and it is a method advocated by some environmental groups to stop predator killing. Unfortunately, here in the west, we don’t see any abatement of the effort to poison, trap, shoot and otherwise diminish these wild animals many of us never have an opportunity to see outside Yellowstone.
What have I learned about Pyrenees here? From talking to livestock owners, Forest Service staff and others, it seems the dogs are left to their own devices with training consisting of being put with sheep as pups to have them identify with the sheep and stay with them while avoiding human contact, taking advantage of their protective nature to fend off predators. Some report they are beaten to keep them away from the sheep camp, not fed to avoid human contact and left on their own devices to feed. This subjects them to being killed for chasing wildlife and one wonders if they ever saw a vet.
According to the literature on training these dogs, none of this is necessary. They can be trained to guard the sheep and still be fed and cared for, and yes, with human contact. I note that abandonment is against the law in Idaho, but wonder if that law is enforced, especially against the livestock industry, a disproportionately powerful force in Idaho.
I have raised this issue with the Forest Service in the past and in current negotiations on renewal of sheep permits in the South Soda allotments, to which a number of organizations have objected. As I asked for the dogs to have identification tags with numbers that can be tied to permits, the Caribou National Forest and its overseers in the Region Office in Ogden, Utah appear to resist adding enforceable permit terms and conditions to halt the abandonment and mistreatment. Such things as vaccination and exam records by the vet, and metal ear tags should be routine requirements along with evidence the dogs are being fed and provided water while in the Forest.
In September, I encountered a Pyrenees along a highway here in the mountains. She was a beauty, pure white and perfectly proportioned. I tried to catch her and later returned with food and treats, but to no avail. The dog was afraid of humans and would not approach. Before she was able to be caught, she was shot and killed. I regret this and it causes me grief as I think about how this dog was treated by ungrateful and uncaring people.
Dr. John Carter is an ecologist who established Yellowstone to Uintas Connection and manages Kiesha’s Preserve in Southeastern Idaho.