Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Many years ago I was driving to East Glacier from Browning in a snowstorm so heavy that I could hardly see the road.  I was the only one out there.  Big feather flakes plastering the road and the windshield so thickly that the wipers could hardly keep up.  It was late, I was exhausted, and half-hypnotized, feeling as though I’d passed through a curtain into another world.

Suddenly from one side a huge white dog charged out of the dark at the van, raging at it, running alongside for what seemed like a mile.  After the first moment of erratic steering, I managed to keep on steadily and by the time I was home, it seemed as though I’d only dreamt a phantom of a white wolf.

The next morning when I drove back down to Browning, I saw a band of sheep along the road and realized that their guardian had come out to challenge me.  I could see the sheepherder’s wagon but he must have called the dog back from the highway traffic.  It was neither dream nor illusion, but the high prairie work of survival.

In the mail I received a review copy of “Brave and Loyal: An Illustrated Celebration of Livestock Guardian Dogs” by Cat Urbigkit and was filled with joy.  I hadn’t expected it, so it was a real Christmas present.

This book is from Skyhorse Publishing, beautifully produced with thick glossy paper that supports the exquisitely detailed photographs by Cat.  There’s a problem.  The dust jacket prompts the bookstore to put this book in the category of “pets.”  It is NOT about pets.  There are great dog stories and most pet owners will love the book, but it should properly be classified as “pastoral ecogeography.”  It is about the synergy among landscapes with indigenous predators, people who raise herds of animals there, and the guard dogs that make it possible. 

Pastoral economies, the management of grazing flocks of sheep or goats, have been a mainstay of mid-continental Eurasia since long before the Christmas angels visited them.  In mid-continental North America the practice was taken up by the SW tribes on arid lands, most famously by Navajo.  They are a way of surviving that is minimal in terms of profit, but near-spiritual in terms of interfacing with land, animals and even plants.  The practice is supported by dogs, who are capable of whole-hearted devotion and obedience to humans and, on their behalf, to other species.

Cat occasionally posts to, so I’ve known her writing for a couple of decades.  Her work is part of a network of people who know hawks, both the guardian dogs and hunting dogs of middle Eurasia, guns, history, and so on.  I found them when thinking about condors on the prairie in buffalo times.  She is a careful, clear writer who provides example after example of what she talks about but never closes down in “dogma” — there is always new insight — and always based on home, not a lab.

Strategy and reflection have worked out the system for getting huge guardian dogs to live with sheep bands, repelling and — if necessary — killing predators as big as bears, in that case working as a team.  But also attending births, guarding mothers who instinctively go off alone, and then eating the afterbirth debris to keep from attracting such marauders as ravens or foxes.  It’s easy to understand how a puppy raised with lambs can imprint and bond.  It’s a little harder to figure out how these guardian dogs are sentinel with penguins, but it’s been done.  And at Cat’s ranch, burros are part of the mix, ready to trample coyotes.

All of this has major implications aside from making a profit.  The more northern and mountainous parts of the middle Eurasian countries are emptying out as the people shift to cities, partly for less arduous lives and partly because authoritarian regimes hate pastoralists who are hard to locate, name and control — independent to the point of potential rebellion, even now that the herders carry sat-phones and microchip their sheep and dogs.  

The result of the lack of steady grazing is overgrowth of woody shrubs and the flammable understories of woods.  It is hard to reclaim.  The loss of herders means the loss of small commerce in shops.  Planners who only recognize major and industrial resource developers with major energy requirements don’t value pastoral economies though in the aggregate they make major contributions.

Here on the east front of the Rockies, predators are real and personal.  This summer the young searching grizzlies, sometimes with their mothers, were coming into Valier.  The leash law, which is very much enforced, meant that the bears were unchallenged.  In Browning, the slightly larger town on the adjoining Blackfeet Rez, the street dogs — who in size and shagginess would look familiar to a Croatian — would never tolerate a bear, a wolf or a coyote.  In East Glacier, a tourist town, the Bison Creek Ranch for dudes, has always kept airedales, big aggressive ones.  If I were a rancher with children who lived in grizz country, I would read this book carefully and look for a supplier of guardian dogs.  (And train the children as carefully as the dogs.)

But the genius of this book is that you needn’t even read the text so a child can turn the pages and see what Cat tells readers in words.  Puppies and lambs, but also ewes and rams, interacting happily.  Big potentially ferocious dogs rear up on hind legs to “kiss” faces of humans.  The predators are seen at a distance — but from the front porch.  This is not a book about destruction and blood, at least not in photos.  The scariest images are the spiked collars the most fierce fighters wear, but even they are managed with caution because they learn to use them as weapons as well as defences.

As the shocks and fractures of globalization show up, it is reassuring to see this biologically basic strata of human culture that is so universal and so protection-based.  I don’t romanticize sheep.  (My relatives raised them in the fenced way and used guns against coyotes.)  That would be the Christians, though from my heretical point of view I rather prefer goats.

When I used to travel in and out of Helena, I would pass the Sieben ranch where lived the Baucus family and — before them — Malcolm Clark with his Blackfeet wife.  Sometimes I saw the goat herd, large enough to flow over the land like a mantle, eating weeds and scattering manure.  

Slowly we are restoring wisdoms that were temporarily lost, except maybe among people who were passed over by “progress.”  I just hope the authorities don’t decide to microchip sheperds as they watch their flocks by night.  Someone besides the government might want to give them a message.  My message is “Bless you and long may you thrive!”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Was just reading your post to my own dogs. Rat dog, the diminutive one, snorted, "Piffle, guardian dogs come in all sizes and we're perfectly capable of taking on predators of all sorts. Tell those ladies about the time I took on the coyote that was sneaking in, looking to grab one of our hens! Or you might remember an earlier story when I fended off that moose!"

Further more, she dares any of those big brutes to dig or climb trees to dispatch gophers and squirrel predators like we do. Probably beneath their dignity to bother with.