Across Colorado, hikers and mountain bikers have been attacked, mauled, threatened, and harassed by sheep dogs – an unintended consequence of a law that makes it more difficult for the state’s sheep herders to trap, poison, or shoot wolves and coyotes.
From as far north as Vail and as far south as Durango and Cortez, the high country contains some of the best hiking and mountain biking singletrack in the nation, including the Colorado Trail, but also grazing lands where, because ranchers can’t use other means to fend off predators, shepherds have chosen to employ dogs for protection. Very aggressive dogs.
These aren’t the big, fluff breeds people might keep as pets; these dogs, often Great Pyrenees and Turkish Akbash, have been bred to be anti-social and to treat every outside presence as a threat.
In 2008, a mountain biker in Vail was mauled and this past summer there have many near misses. Letters in Silverton and Durango papers chronicled the dangers, including one from a hiker who said he was tromping along ten miles west of Molas Pass on the Colorado Trail when he was pursued by two snarling guard dogs who charged and nipped, baring teeth. The hiker had to head off trail and fend off the canines with his trekking poles.
A mountain biker wrote to the Durango Telegraph to describe being entirely surrounded by guard dogs on the Colorado Trail and having no choice but to desperately out-sprint them, fearing he might fall as they bit at his bike’s rear wheel.
“Nobody wants a problem,” said Bonnie Brown, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association, to the Denver Post. Brown described efforts by shepherds to train their dogs on the differences between human strangers and predators like wolves and coyotes. Dogs are being taught to see mountain bikers as friendlier, with some ranchers having their herders pedal around the dogs to make them more familiar both with the profile of a seated rider and of the speeds a bike can attain.
Further work is clearly necessary, however, as grazing permits allow access to the same open space as hikers and cyclists, and as incidents with hikers show, this is not just about the dogs misidentifying mountain bikers as prey, but mistaking any other creature near the sheep as a threat.
There are education campaigns underway in Colorado, too, with signage posted indicating that sheep herding activities are going on and explaining how hikers and bikers should stay away – and how to deal with dogs if people do encounter them. But it’s not always easy to turn around, especially for a through-hiker on the C.T. or a mountain biker or hiker trying to get back to the trailhead before dark.
The BLM is considering changing its policies regarding grazing on public lands for next spring. Either moving sheep farther from trails, or requiring more handlers to be out with the animals and dogs and possibly implementing other measures as well.
This environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. Photo by Jerry Kirkhart