ROCKY MOUNTAIN FRONT — The grizzly bear has roamed the plains of North Central Montana for thousands of years and since the westward expansion, ranchers have had to learn to live with the apex predators.
Grizzlies are still a protected species in the United States and management of the bears is not a fix-all solution. Each year, the population of grizzly bears continues to grow and that poses more issues to livestock husbandry.
Current practices for ranches and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) is to haze a bear from its property to ensure it remembers to steer clear of human life and livestock.
Seth Becker, a regenerative farmer north of Conrad at Stick Leg Ranch, says that in the past two years, grizzly bears have proven to be a nuisance to not only his livestock but the safety of his children playing in the yard.
“These livestock guardian dogs were given to us through a study done with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.”
Becker is the proud owner of two Anatolian Shepherd mixes that appear to be some of the laziest dogs around.
“We have a tracker on the dogs, and after one night we can take a look at the tracker and see that sometimes, they’ve patrolled to upwards of 20, 24 miles,” Becker explained.
The study with FWP has concluded and results from it are still being studied, Wesley Sarmento, Bear Management Specialist with the Conrad branch of FWP says the dogs are effective.
“Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park initiated a study with Utah State University to see if livestock guard dogs are effective at keeping bears away from homes and farms, particularly farms with a lot of attractants that are hard to secure, like grain spills and livestock feed.” Sarmento shared.
The Beckers are in direct contact with Sarmento and his efforts to implement Livestock Guardian Dogs across the Rocky Mountain Front.
“We have to live with these bears… I don’t want to kill everything that comes on our property… I was apprehensive at first about these dogs and they have exceeded my expectations.”
The apprehension comes as a stigma of the breed of dogs is that they are aggressive, tough to train, and tend to wander. Training the dogs takes time and patience, a small investment for a large payout. When it comes to how the dogs roam, that is possibly the biggest downfall. As an owner, it’s important to understand that these dogs need to put on many miles to live a fulfilling life.
Becker told MTN News that his dogs often frequent the neighbors and earn pets and treats while making their rounds across the geographical area. At times, the dogs have even crossed Interstate 15 and swam across the Marias River. All in a night’s work ensuring that grizzly bears don’t come near the property.
Becker also shared that his two dogs are protective over their food, a small tradeoff when it comes to what Seth is asking them to do. Zia and Astra, Seth’s guardian dogs also enjoy naps on their bed, playing with his kids, and stealing snacks off the kitchen counter.
“With the dogs that we've put out, we put out five different dogs. All those dogs that we've put out have been super friendly with people. Really good with kids where little kids will ride them and lay in a bed with these dogs. So, they're not aggressive with people whatsoever,” explains Sarmento.
The reason Stick Leg Ranch was looking for alternative grizzly bear management methods was a bear got into his chicken coop. It was a mass murder, with carcasses left for dead, and bear tracks all over. Encounters with bears in the driveway, yard, and in pastures. Last week, Seth and his cow dog encountered a Grizzly Bear and did their best to haze the bear away.
“The main thing was our children we’re concerned about our three young children that they want to go outside and play. These dogs changed everything. They are our security force, and they do a great job at it.”
Bravery is in the dog’s DNA, and it isn’t uncommon for the two to come home with injuries. Recently, one of Seth’s guardian dogs came home with a large laceration in its knee, they are unsure how it happened. The injury came as the dogs are serving their purpose protecting their family. They do it with pride and joy.
“They know what it smelled like yesterday. They know what it smells like today and they know when there's something, something up.” Becker added.
“The dogs do seem to be a highly effective option without a lot of investment and time and money and resources.,” said Sarmento, adding, “They don't take a lot of work to keep around the house. They're safe with people and they're effective at pushing bears away,”
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks says that if you are interested in a Livestock Guardian Dog, to reach out to your local office. You can also contact Wesley Sarmento at the Conrad Branch at 406-450-1097, and he can point you in the right direction.