Two Anatolian shepherd puppies sit in front of a flock of sheep

The Blackleaf Guardians of the Rocky Mountain Front

“If you have apex predators, you have to have apex dogs,” said Steve Skelton as he spoke to the crowd of meeting attendees huddled around to listen outside the Community Center in Choteau, Montana.  

Steve Skelton runs sheep, amongst the hills, breaks and cliffs of the Rocky Mountain Front. The operation, which sprawls across eight properties, is also home to at least 17 grizzly bears. Skelton uses a menagerie of Eastern European livestock guardian dog (LGD) breeds, including Turkish boz, akbash, kangals and komondors, all weighing more than a hundred pounds, to protect human and livestock safety in the bear dense region. “These dogs have 2,000 to 3,000 years of bear deterrent breeding built into them,” said Skelton, who has strategically selected breeds to create a nested layer of defense around his bands of sheep.

Layering Guard Dogs

Through layering guard dogs and employing electrified night pens for sheep at night, Skelton has dramatically reduced the level of livestock-bear conflict on his property. “I haven’t had to call Wildlife Services in two years”, said Skelton. 

To create the nested layer of defense, highly aggressive and athletic breeds such as Kangals act as patrollers, making perimeter sweeps at night in search of potential foes. While Kangals are bear deterrent machines, they were originally bred to take on wolves with athleticism, a pack mentality and bite force of 743 pounds per square inch (psi), almost 100 psi greater than that of a lion. 

“Sticky” dogs, including Anatolian Shepherds, stay tight to the sheep, bonding with each flock they protect. Patrolling or “sticky”, all of his dogs wear spiked (also called sharded) metal collars, one of which Skelton says he found a piece of grizzly bear lip hanging off of one morning. Together, Skelton’s formidable pack works together to not only deter grizzly bears from depredating livestock, but also works to fend off coyotes and reduce incursions by wolf packs who view his pack of guardians as laying claim to the territory. 

Timber, the Anatolian shepherd stud at Blackleaf Guardians, with two of his offspring in the background. Photo courtesy of Billie Skelton.

Blackleaf Guardians

The hard work and time Skelton has taken to fine tune his breeding and layering process is open for business as well, as Steve runs Blackleaf Guardians along with his wife Billie Skelton, working to breed and sell dogs to folks around the West. You can learn more about Blackleaf Guardians through their Facebook page as well as this video. Additionally, check out the WLA’s landowners’ guide, Reducing Conflict with Grizzly Bears, Wolves and Elk for more information on using livestock guardian dogs to reduce conflict with wolves, bears and elk. 

Matt is deeply motivated to further practices, processes, and policies that support thriving working lands and wildlife in the American West. Through experience as a ranch hand in dense carnivore-country and four seasons as a guide in Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin, Matt’s work is inspired by the challenges and opportunities of sharing working landscapes with wildlife. He is WLA's Working Wild Challenge coordinator.