Armed with bear spray, Jeff Villepique gets out of his pickup and walks through the mountain fog to the edge of a precipitous wash where he recently found the gruesome remains of a protected bighorn sheep.
Villepique, a wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game, says he likes to carry the bear spray just in case he runs into dangerous animals, especially feral or free-roaming dogs.
Standing under a canopy of Jeffrey pines, Douglas firs and live oaks, Villepique has good reason to be concerned about dogs.
In the last few years, Villepique says dogs have killed at least two bighorn sheep on Mt. Baldy, possibly far more. A man out walking discovered the body of the two-year-old ewe right off the road below the Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts. The carcass of another bighorn was found further down the road near the Mt. Baldy Zen Center.
Recalling the scene, Villepique says he discovered a Labrador-Retriever mix still gnawing on the mutilated carcass—minus a leg and horn. Another dog, a German shepherd mix, watched him from the top of the talus wash.
“I’m trained to play CSI to try to look at all the signs,” Villepique says. “I look for things like bite marks, footprints and different characteristics of how the carcass may have been dragged. Nothing pointed to a mountain lion or a bear. And when I walked up, there was a dog feeding on it. All indications are consistent with the dogs being the killers.”
In recent years, officials have captured hundreds of feral and stray dogs in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, a growing problem throughout the West that impacts wildlife and people.
As the number of the bighorn sheep in these mountains only recently rebounded to about 300—following a drop from 740 in 1980 to less than 100 in the mid-1990s—Villepique is particularly troubled by the death of this ewe. She could have given birth to numerous lambs over the next decade, helping the rebound in the population.
But the problem with feral and stray dogs isn’t limited to their negative impact on the recovery of bighorn sheep.
Lytle Creek, a community of 2,000 residents who live in the small towns of Scotland, Tally’s and Happy Jack, is also a magnet for people who dump unwanted dogs in the wild.
Recently, a Mountain Lakes employee was driving to work, swerved to miss a dog running across the road, flipped three times and suffered broken ribs, says Teresa Benitez, an employee at the Lytle Creek camping resort.
“I’m an animal lover and it just kills me to see all these dogs out here,” says Mountain Lakes’ employee Judy Davalos. “They are scared. They are looking for shelter and there is no food. We try to catch them because they just run right out in the middle of the road. Your first reaction is to hit the brake and swerve and not try to hit them like our friend did.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services officials estimate more than 33 million feral and stray dogs are running loose in the United States. Most are found in inner cities and low- income areas where they attack and menace residents, feeding on garbage and pets. About five million people are bitten by these dogs each year and about 10 to 15 people, usually small children, are killed. While most of the dogs inhabit urban areas, many also run loose in wilderness and rural areas, surviving by eating rabbits, quail, bighorn sheep and mule deer, whose populations have also dropped below historical averages in local mountains.
Wildlife officials say pet owners, reluctant to take unwanted dogs to animal shelters where they will likely be euthanized, often abandon the dogs in the mountains. Many become feral and breed more feral dogs. And mountain residents report some of the dogs have bred with coyotes.
In almost any community that abuts the forest, especially rural ones, Kathie Meyer, a wildlife biologist at the Lytle Creek office of the U.S. Forest Service, says dogs are routinely seen running off-leash. Meyer says she doubts the sporadic trapping on accessible roads has made much of a dent in the problem.
Brian Cronin, division chief for San Bernardino County Animal Care and Control, says his office responds when they get calls about feral and stray dogs in the mountain communities.
“If we know of a pack, if you will, of feral or abandoned dogs running around and posing a threat, we’ll abate the situation in some fashion,” Cronin says.
Benitez and Davalos say so many dogs are running wild in the Lytle Creek area that somebody put up a sign recently asking people to drive slowly and watch out for the dogs.
“It’s sad to see all these dogs out here,” Davalos says. “I’m an animal lover and I hate seeing stuff like this.”