Recreation on the range

Sheep dogs, mountain bikers and multiple use collide

 

In the 30 years that Sam and Cheri Robinson have grazed sheep on the White River National Forest near Red Cliff, Colo., their livestock guard dogs have never been particularly aggressive. That is, not until the summer of 2008, when, in the space of a week, their three dogs clashed with mountain bikers in two separate incidents. One was particularly serious: cyclist Renee Legro required numerous stitches after two of the dogs allegedly bit her several times during a mountain-bike race that passed through the Robinsons' grazing allotment.

The Robinsons remain unconvinced that their dogs attacked Legro, but they had all three Great Pyrenees euthanized to avoid further problems. Even so, in September, Sam Robinson was convicted of unlawful ownership of a dangerous dog under a Colorado law previously applied only to urban pets. In October, he was sentenced to 200 hours of community service and a $500 fine plus restitution.

While something of a freak occurrence, the incident points to a larger trend. Colorado's public lands, long home to a prosperous sheep industry –– at 420,000 head and worth $112 million, it's the fourth largest in the nation –– are increasingly the province of hikers, bikers and motorheads. As the likelihood of conflict escalates, livestock producers and land managers are working together to better coordinate permits and more effectively educate recreators.

As in other Western states, Colorado's sheep and cattle industries depend heavily on public lands, and have done so for generations. Most Colorado grazing permits have been in the same family for 50 to 100 years, says Jessica Pettee, rangeland management specialist in White River's Eagle/Holy Cross district.

Over the past 15 years, however, recreational visits to national forests have climbed. The White River leads the nation, and the Eagle/Holy Cross district, where the Robinsons run their sheep, boasts 350 miles of trails and abuts the Vail Valley, a recreational mecca. Meanwhile, the nearby counties of Eagle and Garfield have boomed, growing 25 percent since 2000, compared to a statewide average of 14 percent.

At the same time, bears, mountain lions and coyotes are thriving, and with the loss of some traditional predator control options ranchers are relying more heavily on guard dogs for protection, says Bonnie Brown, executive director of the Colorado Woolgrowers Association. President Nixon banned the use of poison for predator control on federal lands in 1972, and Colorado's Amendment 14 in 1996 drastically limited trapping; when problems arise, livestock producers often have to rely on government specialists from Wildlife Services. The dogs are the most effective predator defense left, say ranchers and rangeland specialists, because they live with the herd, bark and chase off mostly nocturnal predators. In the past year without their dogs, the Robinsons lost 26 percent of their sheep, compared with 7 percent in an average year. And last summer's incident is probably not the last, warns fourth-generation sheep rancher Anthony Theos, president of the Colorado Woolgrowers Association. If Robinson's case sets a precedent, he says, "This could be the beginning of the end for us."

Reports of livestock-guard dogs attacks are rare, however; Pettee and Eagle County Animal Services Director Natalie Duck receive only a couple of complaints each summer. Still, the danger is there, particularly for mountain bikers, who, unlike hikers or ATV riders, appear suddenly and noiselessly and thus might seem particularly threatening to dogs, says Brown. 

Every year, the Vail Recreation District, which organized the race Legro rode in, gets special event permits from the Forest Service for mountain bike and trail-running race series on national forest and BLM land. Such events can bring hundreds of people onto grazing allotments. The Forest Service tries to coordinate all the users, but in the five years that the Vail Recreation District has hosted races on his allotments, Robinson says he's never once received advance word from the agency. If he had, he says, he would have moved his flock: Large numbers of people can scare sheep, and clouds of dust can coat their feed, putting them off eating for a few days.

The Forest Service typically notifies ranchers about special events, says former Eagle/Holy Cross District Ranger Brian Lloyd. Unfortunately, the position of the staffer charged with doing so (currently Pettee's job) was vacant last year, which is why Robinson wasn't warned. And permit coordination has become a bigger challenge because of the sheer number of recreation events, says Lloyd. Ranchers, forest managers and recreation folks agree that they need increased communication between users so that different interests can peacefully coexist. This past summer, Pettee worked closely with the White River outfitter guide permit administrator, comparing race maps and grazing schedules to prevent too much overlap.

Sheep ranchers are working directly to reduce conflicts, as well. For his part, Theos has started keeping his flock away from recreation hotspots on his allotments during weekends, when more people head to the woods. "It messes up our feeding rotations, but we want to keep them away from people," he says.

As for Robinson, he's given up having livestock guard dogs, at least as long as the criminal law can be applied to working dogs. He worries that his business will suffer, but he wants to avoid future incidents. As a producer of meat and wool, he says, "I'm here to help people.

"The last thing we ever want is for someone to get hurt."