Chalk this up as another weird side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With more and more people heading into the backcountry this summer to play because other forms of entertainment have been cutoff, outdoor newbies have been “rescuing” livestock guard dogs and dropping them off at animal shelters.
While it hasn’t been happening much in eastern Idaho, stock owners in central and southern Idaho have dealt with the problem.
“I realize that everybody has their own best intentions, but you shouldn’t be taking a guard dog out of its environment, bringing it home, causing undue stress, and exposing it to unnecessary domestication,” says Cory Peavey, a Blaine County sheep rancher, who has had his dogs hauled away to an animal shelter by mistake.
Peavey said the large, semi-wild dogs are important to protecting sheep from predators such as coyotes, mountain lions, bears and wolves.
“Out of respect for the dog and the rancher, it’s better to leave them where they are,” Peavey said, who was quoted in an Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission news release. “Even if they might look lost, they know the way.”
Eastern Idaho sheep rancher Jeff Siddoway says he has about 24 guard dogs in his operation helping to protect 8,000 ewes and 9,000 lambs.
“You want the dogs out with the sheep 24 hours a day,” Siddoway said. “There’s a lot of times that (the sheepherder) is away from the sheep. Those guard dogs need to be there to protect them from whatever — wolves or coyotes or mountain lions, bear, grizzly bears, whatever. The guard dogs have to be on duty 24/7.”
Siddoway said he hasn’t had the problem of backcountry hikers “rescuing” his guard dogs because most of his grazing area is more remote and sees fewer people than the Sun Valley area. But Lava Hot Springs area Basque sheep rancher Henry Etcheverry tells a different story.
“I have friends that it’s happened to, and it’s caused a hell of a lot of problems,” Etcheverry said. He said he has eight guard dogs and needs a few more to protect some vulnerable flocks, “mostly from coyotes.”
“I wished we had a few more because we had the hell knocked out of us over here by the Pebble Creek area,” he said. “We had a cougar get in there and killed 18 head. I know if we had a good guard dog in there it would have scared that cat away.”
Etcheverry said he runs about 2,300 sheep in southeastern Idaho.
He said because guard dogs get little human attention, they aren’t particularly friendly. “They grow up thinking they’re part of the flock,” he said.
“The thing about it is they are a tad bit defensive,” Etcheverry said. “They’ll scare the hell out of a mountain biker or a hiker. If you’re wandering around and there’s a band of sheep up the road a little ways laying down and the dog senses you’re around he’ll come down barking. I’ll tell you what, the worst thing you can do is run. Flight makes them more excited. They’ll want to really get you then.”
John Noh of Noh Sheep Company in Kimberly has had his guard dogs picked up by people who thought the dogs were lost, and they ended up at a shelter in the Wood River Valley, forcing Noh to spend hours of downtime to go fetch the dog and return it to his flocks.
“These are working dogs that ranchers rely on to non-lethally protect their sheep from predators,” Noh said. “For people to take these animals out of the woods that ranchers have spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars feeding and training is wrong.”
Most of the dogs have ear tags or collars identifying the owner and operation they work for and phone numbers to call if they think the animal is lost.
During the month of September, most sheep ranchers are busy gathering their stock off the range. That also includes their guard dogs.
Renee Kehler, Range Conservationist for the Sawtooth National Forest, said there have been a number of guard dogs picked up by people thinking they were lost or needed attention.
“It’s been happening a lot lately,” Kehler said. “Please treat them like livestock and leave them alone.”