Jeff Villepique usually carries bear spray when he goes into the mountains. But the California Department of Fish and Game biologist isn't worried about bears as he walks to the edge of a steep, rocky wash near the Mount Baldy Ski Lifts resort in Southern California. On this bone-chilling, misty morning, he's worried about dogs.
Villepique recalls the macabre scene he recently investigated here: the tracks of three or four dogs in the snow, tufts of hair marking where a bighorn ewe was dragged down the talus slope, and the carcass itself -- mangled and missing a leg and a horn. The prime suspects: a Labrador retriever mix Villepique found still gnawing on the evidence, and its partner in crime, a German shepherd mix that watched menacingly from the top of the wash.
"It's a great loss," Villepique says. State and federal agencies in California have spent three decades and a lot of money trying to recover local bighorn populations. But encroaching development and its encroaching pets -- some abandoned and others simply allowed to run free -- are complicating efforts.
Officials have captured hundreds of feral and free-roaming dogs in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains in recent years, especially around Mount Baldy and Lytle Creek. In addition to bighorn sheep, the dogs are hammering rabbits, quail, mule deer and other wildlife.
The story is similar across much of the West, as swelling ranks of rogue canines increasingly harass wildlife, livestock, even people. But most federal efforts to protect big game and livestock are focused on killing wild predators. With limited funds for trapping dogs, local officials like Villepique can do little but try to educate the public.
"I doubt we're even making a dent in what is going on out there," says California-based Forest Service biologist Kathie Meyer.
Wildlife Services -- the federal agency responsible for predator control -- estimates that more than 33 million feral and free-roaming dogs run loose in the United States, biting 5 million people each year and killing about 10 to 15, usually small children. In rural areas, feral and loose pet dogs often form packs that chase down and kill deer, elk, chickens, goats and even cattle.
"People don't understand that Fido on the couch who is normally so friendly will instinctively hurt or chase big game animals," says Tyler Baskfield, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
At Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, a ranger recently came across three feral dogs feeding on a bighorn carcass. At the nearby U.S. Marine Corps base at Twentynine Palms, officials have received numerous reports of dogs attacking threatened desert tortoises. In Texas, the dogs go after white-tailed deer and ground-nesting birds. But most incidents go unreported, says Villepique. "There is no reason for me to think we know the full extent of this problem."
Many ranchers are quick to blame wolves, coyotes and grizzly bears for harassing or killing their livestock, but wildlife officials say dogs are often the culprits. Cascade, Idaho, rancher Phil Davis is all too familiar with dog trouble.
"The worst time, we had about a half-dozen dogs that packed up," Davis says. "They were chasing steer and causing some headaches. One time, they chased a yearling steer clear into town. He finally gave up and hid in someone's garage."