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Sheep patrols

Larry Normandy, right, and Morgan Valliant, conservation lands manager for the city of Missoula, walk the North Hills where Normandy is the sheepherder for a flock of noxious weed-eating sheep earlier this week. Normandy, who had never herded sheep before he took the job this summer, says he's learned a lot about their behavior and weeds.

MISSOULA — After three domestic sheep were attacked on three separate days, Missoula city officials are cracking down on people who fail to keep their dogs under control on the North Hills.

“Two of the sheep were able to stay on the mountain, but the third will probably be euthanized,” Missoula open space coordinator Morgan Valliant said on Tuesday. “We have very few repeat offenders. Once you see your dog tear apart a sheep, you don’t want it to happen again.”

But unfortunately, the attacks keep happening as the city counts on sheep to graze down noxious weeds such as leafy spurge and Dalmatian toadflax on about 1,000 acres of public open space. A private contractor has moved 150 sheep onto the North Hills above downtown Missoula, which also has numerous popular hiking trails.

Valliant said all the attacks so far have been in the vicinity of the Orange Street-Interstate 90 trailhead. Dogs are required to be on a leash at the trailhead and for the first 200 yards of trail. At the Orange Street/I-90 trail, that 200-yard point occurs just over a small rise that blocks hikers’ view of a basin just beyond.

“If you get to that point, you’re in a good spot to see where the sheep are and where they’re not,” Valliant said. “But it appears some people, as soon as they get to the trailhead, are letting their dogs off the leash. The owner doesn’t realize the dog’s chasing sheep until they get over that basin rim.”

The sheep owner reported having the same problem two years ago in the same location, when he suffered 15 attacks in 11 days. Seven sheep died in 2012.

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This year’s herd also had the misfortune of mingling with some wild bighorn sheep while they were stationed on Mount Jumbo last week. Three young bighorn rams had to be shot because of the high risk they might contract infectious pneumonia from the domestic livestock and transmit it to other wild sheep.

Valliant said he’d hoped to keep the domestic sheep on Jumbo a few more days, but couldn’t risk the threat to bighorns.

“It’s produced a world of difference since we started grazing,” Valliant said of the noxious weed problem on the public lands. “We’ve been able to reduce the extent of the grazing period and the amount of area covered.”

City animal control wardens are adding extra patrols to the North Hills trailhead to encourage dog owners to be more careful. A dog-at-large ticket can carry a fine of $275, plus possible restitution for the injured livestock. Anyone seeing a dog harassing livestock on city open space ground can report the incident to the Missoula Parks and Recreation Department at 552-6253.

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