By Thomas M. Gehring, Ph.D
Livestock producers throughout the world can be negatively impacted by stock losses due to predators and wildlife-transmitted diseases. In the western part of the Great Lakes Region of the United States, this conflict has increased as gray wolf populations have grown and white-tailed deer have become wild reservoirs for bovine tuberculosis.
From 2005 to 2008, my graduate students at Central Michigan University and I conducted field experiments on cattle farms in the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan to determine the effectiveness of livestock protection dogs (LPDs) for excluding wolves, coyotes, deer, and mediumsized predators from livestock pastures. Our study was the first experimental trial of LPDs on working livestock farms to evaluate their effectiveness in excluding these animals. This type of comprehensive experiment had never been done anywhere in the world.
We integrated female-male pairs of Great Pyrenees pups on six cattle farms and monitored predator and deer use on these farms at the same time we monitored wildlife use on three control farms (no LPDs present). For the first two years of the study, we provided the LPDs and all food and care at no cost to the farmers. We used Great Pyrenees dogs since they are generally less aggressive towards humans compared to other LPD breeds. Great Pyrenees also tend to be more suitable for small and medium-sized farms because of the inherent trait of this breed not to roam far from the livestock they are protecting.
LPDs should be assimilated with the livestock they are to protect before they are 16 weeks old to ensure that a strong bond forms between the dog and livestock. This assimilation or imprinting period - along with monitoring by the farmer to correct inappropriate behavior such as biting - leads to an effective LPD who is protective, attentive, and trustworthy. We integrated pups with calves when the pups were 7-8 weeks old - housing LPD pups in pens with two calves and maintaining an attached pen that the pups could move into to eat, drink and sleep while they were still young.
By May of 2006, the LPDs were active on the farms. From that time forward, wolf and coyote use of pastures declined until it reached zero the following year, where it remained through the end of the study. No livestock were killed by predators on LPD-protected farms, while some livestock were killed on other farms in the area which were not protected by LPDs. Deer use was lower on LPDprotected farms compared to control farms, as well.
Our study demonstrates that LPDs are an effective non-lethal management tool for deterring wolves, coyotes, and deer from livestock pastures on small- and mediumsized farms. As such, LPDs could serve as valuable, proactive management tools that livestock producers could implement on their farms to help reduce livestock losses from predators and wildlife diseases.
We also found that LPDs reduced pasture use by medium-sized predators, such as raccoons, opossums, and skunks. This latter finding might be important for grassland bird conservation, since these medium-sized predators are significant nest predators of birds. This result suggests that LPDs might thus serve as a more general conservation management tool.
Conversations with livestock producers in our study suggest that the LPDs became valuable partners and companions in their operations. Because LPDs monitored pastures continuously, the producers gained greater psychological peace of mind and lower stress, and indicated that they no longer worried as much about wolves eating their cattle because the LPDs were working for them.
An anecdote from our study illustrates this point: When we interviewed farmers for our project, one particular farmer agreed to accept LPDs from us. However, he was convinced that the experiment would be a complete failure. He told my graduate student that she would have the easiest thesis to write in all of history - one sentence of four words: "It did not work." One year into the study, this farmer started to change his mind about the effectiveness of the LPDs. He commented that maybe my student's thesis would need to be a little bit longer than one sentence. By the end of the study in 2008, this farmer believed that the LPDs were effective and he worried much less about wolves traveling around his farm. Recently, one of this farmer's LPDs, George, died of natural causes. This farmer is now actively looking for another LPD pup to integrate with his adult LPD on the farm. He is convinced that LPDs work and wants to continue using them, at his own expense. We are currently working with this farmer to help facilitate his acquisition of another LPD.
Interest in the use of LPDs is growing in the UP of Michigan, due in part to our study. Mostly, I believe the increase in popularity is due to the outstanding farmers, like the one I noted above, and knowledge of their experiences spread via word-of-mouth. Individual farmers who see these LPDs on someone's farm are curious and start asking questions. After 2008, I placed eight more LPD pups on farms in the UP because of growing interest. I currently receive numerous phone calls each month from farmers interested in obtaining LPDs on their farms.
No formal program exists to provide LPDs to farmers in Michigan. I believe such a program would garner wide support from local farmers and lead to extensive use of LPDs to aid conservation, protect livestock, and reduce conflicts between farmers, predators and deer.
This study was funded by AWI’s Christine Stevens Wildlife Award, Central Michigan University, the USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center and SARE program, CITGO Petroleum Inc., Defenders of Wildlife, and National Geographic’s Conservation Trust.