The author’s domestic sheep flock grazes in private pastures in the southern Wind River Mountains in the fall of 2013.
The wolves arrived in the darkest hour of night. They traveled through the rain, tongues lolling from open mouths, trotting swiftly on long legs, toes splayed in the mud as they gripped for traction, leaving massive paw prints behind as the only sign of their presence. Easily clearing the pasture fence in one powerful leap, the smaller gray female and the large black male were intent on returning to the sheep flock for an easy meal.
The wolves had hit the herd the night before, again under the cover of darkness. After spending the day dealing with the carnage of seven dead sheep, and two others that were so severely wounded only a bullet to the head could end their suffering, I had prepared for the wolves’ return. Heavy overcast skies had left the valley shrouded in a gray gloom while I worked with Hud, one of our herding dogs, to bunch the sheep herd against the far corner fence, hurrying as the last rays of light dipped behind the mountains. Hud and I sat side by side on the ground facing the herd in a soft drizzling rain, waiting for the sheep to settle as darkness fell.
Rena was there to meet them when the wolves leapt into the pasture. One-hundred thirty pounds of determined Akbash sheep guardian dog, she met the wolves head-on, brawling in the distance from the herd, in the darkness, in the rain. When the wolves attacked, Rena could face one, as the other attacked her rear. The wolves sunk their teeth into her haunches, nearly severing her tail at its base and biting her tender underside. Fighting for both her own life as well as the lives of her sheep, Rena battled on, keeping the wolves from reaching the herd. The dog warrior returned successful, staggering as she brought her wounded, bloody body back to collapse at my side just before the sun began rising over the jagged granite face of the Wind River Mountains.
It was September 2013, and I had been camped with the herd as it grazed a series of private pastures in the foothills of Wyoming’s southern Wind River Mountains—pastures that have been used by domestic sheep flocks for more than a hundred years. Our small herd was protected by the three burros that are always present, and by a group of livestock guardian dogs. The range here is fluid and complex, with thousands of sheep and their guardian dogs coming and going, as well as the shepherds that accompany them. The sheep flocks carry the same genetics, and I’ve raised many of the guardian dogs that use this rangeland that covers countless square miles, some of which is divided into pastures, while others are allotments that include public land.
Rena at work on the sagebrush steppe of Wyoming, prior to her battle with wolves.
That weekend there were about a thousand sheep grazing in a two-mile area, with at least six livestock guardian dogs. The sheep spread out to graze during the day, but bunch up together to bed at night. Where each dog was located with any bunch of sheep at any given time was fluid. We’d had a lot of bear activity, and the dogs had done a fantastic job of keeping the bears out of the sheep in this area.
One night a few weeks prior, when a bear got into a nearby cattle herd, two of the dogs from my bunch raced to the rescue, as did another guardian dog that came from the south. The two dogs returned to my bunch within about forty-five minutes, and the third dog returned to its station to the south. Rena, our five-year-old Akbash female, had stayed with my sheep—the only reason I know this much is because I was sleeping on the ground next to the flock that night, as I often do. I had believed that if we had problems in the sheep, it would probably be with wolves. When both black bear tracks and grizzly bear tracks were found the next morning, I gave up sleeping under the stars, and started using a tent as a more visible sign of human presence. The only wolf tracks that were found were old, but it quickly became evident that bears were a constant presence. Two of the Akbash dogs with my flock were particularly enthusiastic at hazing bears away.
A young Akbash guardian perches on a high spot to watch over the flock.
The day before the wolves attacked my sheep, there was a combination of Akbash and Central Asian Ovcharka dogs guarding the herds, which were divided into two pastures, with the sheep bedded close to each other, but with a fence line between two main bunches. Some of the dogs were back and forth on patrol, and others stayed inside the flocks. I don’t know what happened that night, since I wasn’t there and the herder camped on the hill to the south couldn’t see anything in the dark. When my husband Jim and I arrived on the rangeland to check our sheep the next morning, we found dead sheep, and walking wounded sheep that later had to be put down. One dog was missing, but later returned. The big herd in the adjacent pasture had been moved into the next allotment (still abutting my bunch), and we made plans to move the next morning since there wasn’t enough time that day to do all that needed to be done. We checked the herd and hiked around both inside and outside the pasture, trying to find all the dead and wounded sheep, looking for tracks, and covering up some of the carcasses lest they be destroyed by ravens or other scavengers. In total, there were nine dead sheep (two ninety-pound lambs and seven adult ewes weighing about 175–200 pounds each). I notified federal wildlife officials that we had a problem and needed an on-the-ground assessment. That would happen at first light on the next day, Monday. Jim was due back to work on Monday, so we raced forty miles back to the house to drop him off, and I threw my gear in the truck, loaded Rena and Hud, and went back to the herd.
Rena’s mother, Luv’s Girl.
After bunching the herd in the corner that evening, I parked my truck about a hundred yards from the flock, and slept in the cab with Hud, with the window down so I could hear and check the sheep through the night. The last thing I saw that night with my spotlight was Rena patrolling from the truck toward the far end of the pasture where the kills had happened the night before. I knew the burros were on that end as well, but couldn’t see that far with my spotlight. I could see Luv’s Girl (Rena’s nine-year-old mother) sleeping with the flock in front of me. It was very dark, with the drizzle from the rain and the clouds completely hiding the crescent moon that was finally visible a few hours before sunrise. There were a few ruckuses during the night, and I could hear guardian dogs barking in various directions at infrequent intervals. Only once during the night did I see the sheep stand up from their beds in alarm, but Luv’s Girl was still visible in front of them. They settled down and I went back to sleep. About 4 a.m., I let Hud out of the cab, and found wounded Rena sleeping on her side next to the truck, with fresh blood on her rump. I talked to her and she responded, but quickly went back to sleep. I spotlighted the sleeping herd, with Luv’s Girl still present, and waited for daylight.
When darkness started easing, I could hear the neighboring sheep herd as the animals started rising from the hillside to the south and I saw two Ovcharka guardians between that flock and my bunch, as well as Luv’s Girl still bedded with my herd, and Rena next to the truck. I went to meet an approaching pickup truck, and within minutes, a Wildlife Services airplane flew over, breaking through the morning fog, shooting two wolves as they fled to the east. From her wounds, we know that Rena had fought with wolves during the night, but the wolves never made it to our flock because of her efforts. We don’t know what role, if any, the burros or the other dogs played.
When Rena tried to stand and walk, she labored to work her back legs, and I could see the deep punctures through her long hair and undercoat. I did not try to assess further damage, but backed the truck up to a nearby ditch bank so she could load up, with me helping to lift her back end, and Rena crying out in pain as I lifted her. She collapsed in the bed of the truck, into an exhausted, wounded sleep.
There was a flurry of activity from that point, much of it involving other people coming to the rescue while I turned my attention to Rena and getting her to the vet clinic an hour away—my flock was moved to the south, and the carcasses picked up while I was driving the sixty miles to Pinedale. There would be at least two other large range herds exiting the mountains in the next few days (each flock with up to eleven guardian dogs), and they had been slated to rest and transition in these private pastures for a few days before they would begin trailing to the south. The plans were changed to speed the herds through this area. I learned that another guardian dog was brought off the mountain with his throat mangled by a predator. He did not survive.
Moving a flock from the high country of the Wind River Mountains.
Finally within range to pick up a cell phone signal, I called the vet clinic, warning them I was headed their way with a dog that had been injured by wolves. Brent, our veterinarian, had known Rena all her life, and knew the life-threatening danger posed to the dog from wounds inflicted by wild predators. By the time I got to town, Rena was unable to get up on her own. I climbed into the back of the truck and lifted her onto the gurney with the help of two other women from the vet clinic. Rena was very sweet about it all, stoic as she was strapped down and rolled inside the clinic. The clinic staff let me stick around for a few minutes to comfort Rena, as they checked her vitals and began preparing a plan of action. They would administer fluids and sedation to her first, before shaving her to find the damage underneath.
When I returned to see Rena in the late afternoon, she was still groggy from sedation, but her dozens of wounds had been cleaned and stapled. She wagged her tail at me, which gave me hope that she’d pull through. The vet clinic staff said that the matted hair on her hind end had probably saved her life. Much of the hair had been pulled out, but it cushioned the bites. A few days later the clinic released Rena to come home, where I could help keep her wounds open and draining, and feed her painkillers and antibiotics. We had a few tense days with her, unsure if she would survive. Rena did substantially recover, but with some lingering stiffness in her hind end. Within three months she had returned to aggressively pursuing predators near her herd, with somewhat renewed vigor about it. She was five years old, splendid in her elegance, strength, and beauty.
Five-year old Rena recovering from her conflict with wolves.
When large carnivores and livestock share the same range, some animals will be killed—some wild, some domestic. It happens across western rangelands routinely, and while it is not pleasant, it is reality. It’s hard to imagine what the damage would have been to our herd had our livestock guardian dogs not been present. We don’t live within the full-time range of a wolf pack, so encounters with these animals are random events. Our encounters with coyotes are daily, and black bear encounters are frequent, but predator events are never entirely predictable.
Livestock protection is not an automated system, with predictable events and outcomes. There is no magical number or breed of dogs, or combinations of breed, age or sex, or set acreage, or fence design, or terrain, that allows a livestock producer to follow a formula to safeguard a herd from predation. I don’t know how many black bears, grizzly bears, and wolves are in each area where our flock grazes, let alone how many of these animals the guardian dogs come into contact with. This is a fluid system, with livestock, predators, and guardians sharing rangeland at random times and spaces, sometimes in conflict, but with varied outcomes. It’s never perfect, but it works really well most of the time. It works because the guardian dogs serve as the brave buffer between predator and prey.
A guardian dog blocks the roadway while the flock passes.