February 21, 2012
Coyotes Under Fire, Page 4: Predator-Friendly Pioneers
New breed of ranchers prefers nonlethal control to protect sheep
by Karen E. Lange
Far from the Beltway, a quiet movement toward nonlethal control has been taking place. In the 1970s, ranchers started using guard animals: llamas and donkeys, who have an instinctual dislike of canids, and specially bred and trained dogs like the Great Pyrenees. Then, in the 1990s, some ranchers began to be certified as “predator friendly” to help market their products. At the time those two words made a lot of ranchers angry, says Becky Weed, who produces predator-friendly wool in Montana. Now just about everybody has a livestock protection animal. “The most important thing is that the guard dogs are with the sheep 24/7,” says Weed. “A government trapper can’t be.”
Ranchers like Weed also quickly remove carcasses of stillborn calves and other animals to avoid attracting scavengers. And they invest in electrified fences and closer supervision—moving animals into pastures away from predator sightings, bringing them into corrals at night, and keeping them in or near sheds during lambing. Fladry, or the practice of tying strips of cloth or plastic to fences, and noise and light devices can also scare coyotes away.
In 2000, Marin County, Calif., dropped its cooperative agreement with Wildlife Services and started giving money directly to 18 ranchers for nonlethal control. Elsewhere, in addition to Weed, a couple dozen other ranchers have officially gone predator-friendly, says Abigail Breuer, who’s in charge of the certification for the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network. At least 300 more—maybe 10 times that—qualify, she says.
This approach makes sense given the economic factors affecting the sheep industry. When wildlife biologist Kim Berger set out to quantify how much predation had hurt sheep ranchers from 1939 to 1998, she found that low lamb prices and high production costs had played a much greater role in the industry’s decline than coyotes. Predator control programs that cost an estimated $1.6 billion did not seem to have made a difference. (Now, with droughts in Australia cutting the supply of lamb, and demand up, the U.S. sheep industry is once more profitable.)
“Taxpayer dollars might be better spent to support sheep producers through direct cash payments or some other form of subsidy if the goal is to increase sheep and wool production and not merely to kill carnivores,” writes Berger in her 2006 report.
Researchers are working on additional nonlethal options. They’ve found that sterilizing coyotes reduces the likelihood they’ll prey on sheep by two thirds or more—enough to cover the cost of the surgeries, says Gese, at the National Wildlife Research Center field station in Logan, Utah. “It’s economical because [the coyotes] do maintain their territories,” says Gese. “A lot of ranchers remind me that bullets are cheaper, but with lethal control you have to do it every year.” If they can get funding, researchers would like to develop a nonsurgical contraceptive that also won’t alter coyote behavior and is cheaper and easier to administer. In addition, they hope to test breeds of guard dogs for their effectiveness against wolves, since some ranchers face both predators and may stop using guard animals if wolves kill their dogs, says Logan biologist Julie Young.
Boyles praises the research but says it seems to have no effect on the way agents operate. “There appears to be a huge chasm in the agency between the people that are developing nonlethal methods and the people that should be using them in the field.”
"If we lose 1 or 2 percent, that's the cost of doing business."
Ranchers like Richard Harjes, though, have embraced nonlethal tactics. When he and his wife, Katy, started raising sheep in 2008, their Montana ranch lay in a boxed canyon dense with coyotes. There was a pack to the north, a pack to the east, and a pack to the south. Looking for a way to avoid killing coyotes or the mountain lions or black bears living around their property, the Harjes discovered the type of livestock guardian dogs long used in Europe. The first year, when they had only one dog borrowed from a neighboring rancher, losses were steep—around 8 percent of their 500-animal herd, half from mountain lions and half from coyotes. Harjes would see the carrion birds in the pasture and know, instantly, he’d lost a sheep to a coyote (the mountain lions typically carried the bodies off).
The Harjes might have gotten discouraged and quit. Instead, they bought five dogs weighing 120 to 150 pounds apiece (to the coyotes’ average 25 to 30), who were bred and trained to bond with sheep and fiercely defend them. The second year losses fell to 4 percent, the third year to just 1.
“You create this standoff with dogs—the dogs are constantly peeing on things ... and walking along the fences,” says Harjes, who figures he’s training his local coyote packs as well as the dogs. One day he stepped out of his house to see a coyote in the pasture. In the same moment, “the [dog] did a quarter-mile sprint and the coyote took off like a shot and just made the fence.”
Maybe, Harjes says, someday he will have to kill a coyote to protect his sheep. But it will be as a last resort. And so at night he listens, happily, to the coyotes’ distinctive yipping and howling. Sometimes, if they’re real close, he gets nervous and goes to check his sheep. Mostly, though, he trusts his dogs and enjoys the coyotes’ wild songs. “If we lose 1 or 2 percent,” he says, “that’s the cost of doing business.”