G’day from the Blue Mountains of southeastern Australia! I’m here on a mission to help Australian wildlife managers protect dingo, the country’s only large apex predator. Dr. Brad Purcell, an expert dingo researcher, is my guide and host in the region. Dr. Purcell and I met when he visited Defenders’ Wood River Wolf Project in Idaho several years ago as part of his world wide expedition investigating nonlethal wildlife management programs. His excellent work studying dingoes became the catalyst for my visit here.
The Blue Mountains south of Sydney are essentially an uplifted plateau crisscrossed by a number of larger rivers: the Wollangambe River in the north, the Grose River in the center, and the Coxs and Wollondilly Rivers in the south. Locals call this area the “Bush”, which is predominately a large Eucalyptus forest and home to kookaburra, wombats, red-necked wallabies, wallaroos, and eastern grey kangaroos. More rare species found here include koala, platypus, quolls, and dingo, a more recent addition to Australia having originated from domestic dogs introduced to the continent approximately 15,000 years ago.
The goal for this trip is to evaluate if the nonlethal methods we’re using in the U.S. Northern Rockies to successfully protect livestock against wolf predation may also be effective in reducing dingo predation on livestock. Livestock protection is the primary cause of dingo mortality in Australia. Every year, hundreds, possibly thousands of dingoes are poisoned or shot. Dingo have been considered such a threat that the Australian government built more than 3,000 miles of fence over a century ago in an attempt to exclude the wild canines from ranching areas. In western parts of the country today, government agriculture agencies are offering “$100 a scalp” bounty for dead dingoes. The issue is further complicated by breeding with stray dogs, which has been the focus of Dr. Purcell’s dissertation work.
The day after landing in Sydney, my first stop was a presentation at the University of Technology, Sydney. More than 100 people attended to learn more about the shared plight of wolves and dingo and were so keenly interested that the Q & A session lasted more than an hour. Some were surprised to learn that dingo, like all dogs wild or not, are all descendants of wolves and share many similar characteristics. For example, dingoes and wolves both live in packs formed with a social hierarchal structure. These packs work together to hunt animals larger than themselves. Like wolves, dingo test their prey and help cull weak prey animals from herds. In terms of ecological importance, the dingo (also called wild dog) is fulfilling a wolf-like niche in Australia and may contribute the same trophic cascade benefits of their larger ancestor by pressuring prey species into smaller groups that avoid large open areas more, which reduces overgrazing of valley bottoms and riparian areas And like wolves, the dingo helps reduce disease and overpopulation of other prey species. They are also scavengers and are attracted by dead or dying livestock.
After Sydney, we headed into the Bush to give presentations for local communities and meet with ranchers and farmers to assess the causes of dingo predation on livestock. At times their comments sounded like some of the western USA ranchers: “Dingo kill for fun.” “These aren’t native dingo. These are bigger, meaner, more destructive.” “That might work for some ranchers but it won’t work for my operation.” It was a bit of déjà vu listening to them but good in the sense that I was ready to address these reactions by addressing the same concerns that I have to regularly address with ranchers in my region.
Despite their initial reaction, a few livestock managers and owners allowed us to visit their farms and ranches (called properties) to see the exact locations where they have lost livestock to dingo attacks. While dingoes rarely kill cattle, they are blamed for the loss of tens of thousands of sheep annually. By seeing these areas firsthand and discussing the situation that led up to the depredations, Dr. Purcell and I were able to identify a number of nonlethal tools and livestock husbandry methods that should reduce their losses and save dingo.
For example, one large farm had an extensive amount of dead livestock scattered about. Since the dingo is also a scavenger, it will travel miles out of its way to investigate carcasses in hopes of a free meal. This farm was right next to a large forest where dingoes live. By burning or deposing of the carcasses and removing sick livestock, it should reduce dingo attraction to the farm. On another ranch in the Capertee Valley, the sheep were grazing in large pastures (called paddocks) far from human supervision. The valley was once the native home of the Wiradjuri people and is now surrounded by protected world heritage wilderness areas, which are habitat for dingo and other wildlife. The only guard dog used at the Capertee ranch ran away to a neighboring ranch so sheep managers gave up on nonlethal deterrents. Unfortunately, they had just killed a young dingo only the week prior to our visit.
They needed a guard animal that is easy to maintain but will stay with the sheep. In this case, given the arid and remote terrain, I recommended a trial using donkeys, which if raised properly and bonded with the flock, can graze alongside sheep and aggressively drive away dingo if they come too close to the livestock. The sheep manager agreed to give it a try and report back on their efforts! Other tools like fladry and increased lighting may also be helpful in more limited situations like another small farm where dingo had killed a few sheep in the base of the Megalong Valley. Dr. Purcell recommended that the farmer’s dogs also be spayed and neutered to avoid attracting wild dingo in the nearby woods. Perhaps that and a combination of fladry or lighting could help avoid attracting dingo back to the farm.
After an evening dinner with Dr. John Marson, our gracious host in Katoomba and renowned environmental philosopher and author, we finished packing our bags. We’re ready to leave the rural areas and head deep into the Bush to track dingo in the Burragorang Valley in the Blue Mountains National Park.
Suzanne Stone, Senior Representative, Rockies & Plains