CHOTEAU, Mont. (AP) — A lanky white dog with a lab-like face stands on its hind legs with its paws on the shoulders of Ben Hofer of the Rockport Colony.
"Radar" is nearly as tall as Hofer, who's no shrimp.
"Come here buddy, how you doing, how you doing?" says Hofer as he gives the dog an affectionate pat.
Radar gets along well with Hofer and the colony children. But the aim of a new study is to find out whether the big dog is nasty enough to stand up to Montana wolves and grizzly bears. Wolves in particular have been having their way with other breeds of guard dogs charged with protecting sheep.
Radar is a Kangal, a tough long-legged Turkish breed known for standing their ground and confronting predators if need be.
"It looks like they're skinny, but they're not," says Hofer.
The four-year study in Montana will compare the effectiveness of several breeds of guard dogs.
The $80,000 effort is being funded by the National Wildlife Research Center, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services in Logan, Utah. Wildlife Services heads up predator control efforts for the USDA.
Daniel Kinka, a doctoral ecology student at Utah State University in Logan, is leading the effort on the ground. He's splitting time between a ranch in the Lincoln area and the New Miami and Rockport colonies. That's where the different breeds of dogs have been placed.
The study will be expanded to other western states, he says.
"There's reason to believe they might be better suited for dealing with large carnivores," Kinka says of the Kangal, which has a history of confronting brown bears and wolves in Turkey.
The aim of the study is to see if breeds that have been little-used in North America, such as the Kangal, are a better non-lethal large carnivore deterrent than other breeds commonly used in the United States, such as Great Pyrenees and Akbash, Kinka said.
The outcome will be of keen interest in sheep-producing states such as Montana, where there are an estimated 230,000 sheep vulnerable to grizzly bears, wolves and coyotes, says John Steuber, state director of USDA Wildlife Services in Montana.
"There's a lot of excitement out there at the possibility they will help," he says.
Most of the previous guard-dog research has involved coyotes, he said. "Now we're getting into more and more wolf depredation and we're finding out these dogs can't fight the wolves," he said.
Wolves have no problem killing Great Pyrenees, he said. Some producers have taken to using as many as eight to 10 dogs now for a band of sheep, he said.
Kangals, he said, are a little larger and more athletic.
Guard dogs have been used for thousands of years in Europe, Kinka said. In the United States, more producers started using them in the 1970s, mostly as a deterrent against coyotes.
Coyotes remain the top threat but there are more wolves and grizzly bears on the landscape today and more guard dogs are being killed as a result, Kinka said. Wolves in particular are very territorial and will kill dogs if they get the chance, he said.
Gail Keirn, spokeswoman for the National Wildlife Research Center, said the study was launched following a meeting of the American Sheep Industry Association in 2011.
"They wanted to find a more hardy breed," Keirn said.
As part of the study, Great Pyrenees and Akbash dogs have been placed at the New Miami Colony. Three Kangals are at the Rockport Colony. Akbash and Maremma mixes are at the Lincoln-area ranch.
Each dog is fitted with a GPS collar.
One day last week, Kinka hopped on top of a pickup with a telemetry antennae pointed toward the sky looking for guard dogs at the New Miami Colony. Even with the GPS, it wasn't easy finding them on the vast landscape.
"I think the bears got 'em all," joked Jason Mandel, the New Miami sheep boss.
Finally Kinka tracked a white speck on a far-away slope. It was Snowflake, a Great Pyrenees.
Kinka also will have access to the locations of wolves and grizzly bears that Montana wildlife managers collect from radio collars on those animals.
He'll compare data on the movements of the carnivores and the dogs and study how they interact and also track the number of sheep killed. Remote cameras also are set up.
"We're trying every method we can to try to protect these sheep," said Hofer, as Radar, Mirriam and Kaan milled about.
The 90-resident colony, which has 850 sheep, is in grizzly bear territory on the Rocky Mountain Front. Ben Hofer once watched as grizzly cubs played in a reservoir.
"That would have been a million-dollar movie," he says.
But the bears are threats to the colony's sheep, he adds.
The Kangals, which can weigh up to 150 pounds, came from a Texas breeder, arriving in Montana on a 20-below December day. Hofer says the dogs didn't seem to mind.
He's pleased with their performance so far even though they haven't had any run-ins with bears yet. Colony members just feel better having the dogs close by, he said.
"They're pretty sensitive," says Hofer, noting they take off running without warning sometimes. "They've got a good sense of smell or a good sense of hearing. I don't know which one it is, but they must both work together."
Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com