Forest Service district ranger meets with Town Council on issue of aggressive dogs clashing with hikers, mountain bikers in the backcountry.
By Mark Esper
Aggressive sheep guard dogs used by ranchers in the high country around Silverton are a clear and present danger, not only to backcountry hikers, but also to the economic well-being of the town.
At least that’s the opinion of some Silverton Town Council members, who voiced their concerns Monday night, Jan. 23, in a meeting with Forest Service District Ranger Matt Janowiak.
“People don’t want to see the dogs out there,” said Mayor Terry Kerwin.
Janowiak explained that the Forest Service has been working with ranchers to take steps to avoid clashes between the dogs and backcountry users.
Janowiak said some problem dogs have been removed and ranchers are implementing better training so the dogs don’t see humans as a threat to their flocks.
“We’ve tried to make the ranchers understand that there is an extreme risk to their livelihood to have those dogs out there,” Janowiak said.
Janowiak said he recognizes how important recreation is to the Silverton area.
“We do sit down with ranchers and say ‘we’ve got to do things better. We know we can do things better,’” Janowiak said.
Janowiak said the ranchers have been responsive when dogs cause problems. He recounted an incident two years ago in Velocity Basin involving a dog owned by Ernie Etchart, a sheep rancher from Montrose who grazes lambs in San Juan County.
“I called Ernie. He came up two days later and took it back to the ranch,” Janowiak said. “Ultimately he put the dog down. The younger dogs he uses now are better socialized.”
Janowiak said he spoke with another rancher, Randy Leonard of Olathe and advised he keep his sheep away from the Colorado Trail after some incidents there last summer.
“We sat down with him and said that’s what you need to be doing,” Janowiak said.
Janowiak addressed concerns that Silvertonians and visitors here have trouble getting information on where the sheep herds are.
“We deliver that information to the field office (in Silverton),” Janowiak said. “We’ll get it to the Visitors Center too.”
And Janowiak urged backcountry users who have problems with sheep guard dogs to let his office know about it.
“I can’t take any action unless people pick up the phone and call me,” Janowiak said. “I became aware of the confrontations (last summer) by reading news reports.”
Town Trustee “Outback” John Schertz said he understands the ranchers’ need to prevent their herds from being eaten up by predators.
“There has to be some happy medium,” Schertz said, whereby sheep herds and backcountry users can coexist.
Town Trustee Pat Swonger said San Juan County and Silverton get little if any benefit from the grazing on federal land. The three ranchers who graze sheep here are all from outside the county.
“We don’t get a lot of economic benefit from sheep here,” Swonger said. “The real concern is not only about personal safety but about our livelihood. The question is the impact on tourism.”
Trustee Karla Safranski told Janowiak that the plan to post more signs at trailheads where sheep may be grazing is not particularly helpful in making visitors feel safe and welcome.
“The last thing we need in San Juan County is more ‘danger’ signs,” Safranski said. “The sheep herders are making San Juan County seem like a danger zone. We don’t want your negative signs. We don’t need dangerous animals in the backcountry. We don’t want these dogs and we don’t see the use for them.”
Janowiak said the signs will simply inform trail users about what to do if they encounter a sheep guard dog.
“If we don’t stay on top of this it will have an impact on recreation out there,” Janowiak said.