As ranchers diversify, jobs for protection dogs multiply

David Briggs
A guard dog looks over pasture-raised chickens on Dave Evans’s historic ranch in Point Reyes National Seashore. Livestock protection dogs, which are rising in popularity among regional producers seeking to avoid lethal measures, are partially funded by the county. 

A county agricultural program that has for years helped sheep ranchers fund the protection of their flocks is now also helping to protect pasture-raised chickens. Although the freedom to wander produces a more humane egg, it also make birds more vulnerable to rapacious predators.

As ranchers look to diversify their farms—and as the demand for pasture-raised protein increases—a few of Marin’s egg and poultry producers are using livestock guardian dogs to watch over chickens. 

For now the number of such farmers participating in the county’s cost-share program, which partially pays for nonlethal predator control methods such as fencing and guard animals, is small. Of the 24 participating ranches that use guard dogs, only four use them for poultry. Three use them for goats.

But Anita Sauber, an inspector with Marin’s Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures, expects that will soon change. “I know that number’s going to go up,” she said. “I think we’ll see numbers go up definitely in the poultry area.” 

According to a spokesman with the California Department of Food and Agriculture there are an estimated eight cage-free poultry operations, five of which began since the end of 2012. 

For Dave Evans, who runs Marin Sun Farms, there is a catalogue of reasons why ranchers may increasingly look to poultry. “In general there’s been pretty high demand, and it’s growing,” he said. “People are looking for ways to diversify their farm.” 

Pastured eggs, for instance, command a higher price tag than caged eggs; a dozen from Marin Sun Farms cost $7.99, though the costs of running pasture operations are higher too.

Chickens also work well with ongoing livestock operations. “They don’t compete for the same forage, and the chickens actually fertilize the pastures,” Mr. Evans said. The fact that chickens are small and easy to manage doesn’t hurt, either: operations can begin at a small scale and grow over time.

Marin has been touted as a prime example of nonlethal livestock protection. The county began funding nonlethal measures in 2000, after public outcry over lethal control. In the early 1980’s there had been a sudden and unexplained reappearance of coyotes; ranchers at the time were losing up to 100 lambs, according to this newspaper’s reports.

The use of breeds like Great Pyrenees, Anatolian Shepherds and Maremmas, which have been bred for thousands of years to defend flocks in Europe and Asia, began to appear in the United States in the 1970’s, when federal law banned the use of poisons, such as strychnine, on public lands.

Two fluffy, cream-colored canines lay serenely among a bevy of hens on Tuesday at one of Mr. Evans pastures in the Point Reyes National Seashore. A Great Pyrenees mix barked as a stranger approached, just as it’s been bred to do for centuries. The birds like to roam around, but despite their ambulatory ways, Mr. Evans said his losses have fallen by about half since the dogs arrived eight years ago.

Unlike lambs, poultry are not just vulnerable to coyotes and bobcats, but also to predatory birds, such as hawks or eagles. “If there’s a large, furry, barking creature running below, they don’t feel comfortable coming down to ground level,” Mr. Evans said. 

The dogs’ bond with chickens is a bit trickier than it is with lambs, however. Liz Cunninghame, co-owner of Clark Summit Farm in Tomales, who uses dogs to guard her roughly 1,800 chickens that roam 24 hours a day, said it takes more time and effort for the animals to bond. Still, she credits the success of her business to the dogs; before that, “The word was out to the wildlife community: chicken for lunch at Clark Summit,” she said.

And other local ranchers speak proudly of their dogs. Marcia Barinaga, who makes Basque-style cheese in Marshall, has a flock of about 100 ewes and 200 lambs, and she’s never lost a sheep. Although she said she would shoot a coyote without hesitation—and she does target practice with a picture of the predator—Ms. Barinaga said, “If you keep shooting them, others are going to move in.”

Camilla Fox, the founder and executive director of Project Coyote, a Larkspur-based national nonprofit that advocates for humane predator control, spoke to the stability that nonlethal methods promote. “Continually removing those coyotes creates niches for young coyotes to move in who often become ‘problem coyotes’ as they seek novel prey,” she said. 

The coyotes also eliminate rodents, which leave holes in the ground that flock animals can fall in to and injure themselves. 

But not everyone is unabashedly supportive of the county’s current stance on lethal protection.

Tomales rancher Chris Cornett said his half-dozen guard dogs, along with better fencing, for him worked well for a while, but he’s seen troubling losses in recent years. He believes the problem may stem in part from the increasing scarcity of sheep ranchers: fewer ranches mean a bigger burden on those that remain.

“These last five years, I’ve had at times as many as 30 lambs killed [in a six-month period],” he said,. “I’m not knocking the [livestock protection] program, but in one aspect, there were some tools that were taken away from us.” 

Although it’s difficult to say why dogs work well for one rancher and not another, a number of factors can influence how effective dogs are, including the size of pastures, the nature of the pasture itself, the size of the flock, the quality of fencing and whether the dogs are focused, or subpar, workers.

And although Marin boasted impressively low rates of animal loss through 2007, the county has stopped keeping track. That’s because in 2008 budgetary issues led the county to stop reimbursing participating ranchers for animals lost to predators; without that exchange, there is no record. (Previously the county paid between $50 and $100 a head.) 

Budget cuts have halved annual funding for the program to about $25,000 last year, and the program operates on a first come, first served basis. Near the end of last year, a few ranchers didn’t get in because the money had run out.

In order to ensure that the program continues to work, the county is holding a workshop for ranchers at the end of August. While Ms. Sauber said the department would have liked to hold the workshop a few years ago, reduced funding and limited staff time got in the way. “I think it’s really important to have some background as we see the population of these dogs increase,” she said.

The guard dogs’ unique mentality, which is completely focused on protecting the herd, can lead to confusion among those accustomed to dogs as pets. “They rarely listen to commands, but that is because they have been bred for thousands of years to think for themselves and be independent. No sit, stay and lay down from these guys. It just isn’t a priority for them,” Ms. Cunninghame said.

On the other hand, Ms. Sauber said, the belief that dogs must remain completely unsocialized to humans can lead to other problems, such as when they need medical attention.

Some ranchers, like Ms. Cunninghame, have dogs that are more comfortable around humans. Ms. Barinaga’s dogs lie on the opposite end of the spectrum, and they disdain the few times that they must come into close human contact. 

The county has invited ranchers from Sonoma, which is embroiled in its own controversy over predator control, to the workshop.