March 15, 2004
Mar/Apr 2004 -- It's a shame, said Jw Nuckolls of Wyoming, that predators such as coyotes and wolves continue to distract American sheep producers from producing lamb and wool.
"I think it's kind of sad to devote so much energy to these predator issues instead of having more time to improve our product and our marketing," said Nuckolls, co-chair of the American Sheep Industry Association's (ASI) Predator Management Committee. "But you can't do much marketing if you don't have a live animal."
On the other hand, said sheep producer Leo Tammi of Virginia, producers should have a management plan for coyotes just like they have management plans for animal health, forages and marketing.
Coping with predator losses, especially to coyotes and wolves, was a main focus in January during meetings of ASI's Resource Management Council.
Nationally, losses to predators rank as one of the biggest challenges for producers. Tom McDonnell, a Wheatland, Wyo., livestock producer and director of natural resources and policy for ASI, said the most recent statistics show that coyotes cause 60.7 percent of all sheep and lamb losses to predators. Dogs, both feral and domestic, are the next most deadly predator, causing 15.1 percent of losses, followed by 5.7 percent to mountain lions. In some places, like Wyoming and Texas, golden eagles rank second behind coyotes in lamb kills.
Nuckolls said he suffers lamb losses to coyotes of 10-15 percent each year on his northeast Wyoming sheep and cattle operation, located near the Black Hills in a natural run for coyotes. The only way he can compensate for losses that high is with high twinning rates.
"If our lamb crop is not 150 percent, we're in trouble," he said.
Nuckolls said the severe depredation on his flock has resulted from the loss of many cost-effective tools for coyote control, including the banning of 1080 in 1972, and fewer trappers in the field from the Wildlife Services division of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
"Even though ASI has gotten the Wildlife Services' budget boosted, it really hasn't boosted people in the field because of inflation," says Nuckolls.
Cook County, where he operates, used to have two full-time Wildlife Services trappers, which kept losses to acceptable numbers. Now, he said, the county has just one trapper for the whole area.
McDonnell said one reason for the decline in trapping efforts on behalf of the livestock industry has been the increased demand for Wildlife Services efforts in suburban and urban areas to deal with things like birds at airports and other increasing animal pest problems.
Tammi, who runs 400-500 sheep, 50-60 goats and 50 head of cattle on Shamoka Run Farm in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia, said that coyotes have discovered Virginia in the last 15 to 20 years, and their populations continue to expand. Indeed, he said, eastern coyotes tend to be larger than those in the West, running around 40 pounds, with one recently reported at 47 pounds.
He said surveys conducted by the Virginia Department of Game and Fisheries had shown that hunters killed around 1,000 coyotes a year. But in 2002, hunters killed 6,000 coyotes, and the number leapt to 8,000 last year, attesting to increasing numbers.
When the coyotes first appeared, said Tammi, simple solutions, like moving the sheep or electric fences, seemed to thwart them. But coyotes learn quickly.
"The coyote is an intelligent animal and you don't want to educate it," said Tammi. "If you shoot at a coyote and miss, you've educated it."
On Shamoka Run Farm, Tammi controls coyotes with a combination of Great Pyrenees guard dogs and llamas. In addition, he said, the Virginia industry has benefited from its sheep check-off combined with matching funds from the Virginia Department of Agriculture, USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services and a federal appropriation, all totaling $228,000 for predator control.
"I would almost want to say that there's no reason to be driven out of the sheep industry in Virginia because we do have effective tools for predator control," said Tammi.
Nuckolls said coyotes keep many of his cattle-producing neighbors from adding sheep to their operations.
"The combination of sheep and cattle in our area complements the pasture and improves the range," he said. "But they see these kinds of losses and shy away."
McDonnell said that population suppression remains the most effective control against coyotes, with aerial hunting in the West being the most important tool. He reminded producers not to underestimate the impact hunters have on coyote numbers, especially when fur prices rise.
"An increase in fur prices always helps us," he said. "For the last 10 years, fur prices have been depressed because of pressure from animal rights groups on the fashion industry."
When fur prices fell, coyote depredation increased. But fur prices appear to be coming back, he said, and so are the hunters.
In addition to lethal methods of controlling coyote populations, producers spend around $10 million a year on non-lethal methods, including scare tactics, penning, herding, shed lambing and guard animals.
"We are using every tool we can figure out," said McDonnell. "The coyote is the most amazing animal I've ever seen in terms of intelligence."
The industry is now working with researchers at the National Wildlife Research Center on several new control technologies, including power snares, improved lures, sterilization of both males and females and scare devices. They're even testing caffeine and chocolate, which have proved lethal, holding some control possibilities.
McDonnell noted that increased problems with coyotes and other pests in urban areas, while it may detract from Wildlife Services efforts on behalf of livestock, can raise the profile of animal pest issues in the public eye.
Tammi agreed that the occasional appearance of a coyote in urban areas can help show the animal as a nuisance. He cited a local television news story in which a clearly shaken man recounted how a coyote had stalked him as he rode his lawnmower, until he dodged into his house to retrieve a gun and shot the animal.
"That kind of publicity raises the public's awareness," he said.
While coyotes cause the greatest loss to sheep operations, the expanding wolf populations in the West are of equal concern to producers in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho - all involved in the experimental reintroduction of wolves - and surrounding states into which wolves have ventured.
(McDonnell noted plans for holding a March 20 wolf summit in Salt Lake City among agricultural groups from Idaho, Montana and Wyoming as well as states potentially affected by wolves, including Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah and Colorado as well as upper Midwest states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.)
Nuckolls said the wolf is a mixed bag for sheep producers, providing the benefit of preying on coyotes but at the same time raising havoc in sheep flocks.
"As the wolves multiply, we don't know what they'll do to the coyote population," he said. "I don't believe there were that many coyotes before the wolves."
But while wolves may feast on their smaller cousins, Nuckolls said coyotes are more acceptable than wolves given the wolves' killing ability and their ability to spook the flock, which can result in weight losses.
While Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have completed management plans as required by the wolf reintroduction rules for their delisting as endangered species in the three states, Wyoming's plan continues to generate controversy.
Ideally, said Nuckolls, Wyoming producers can hang their hat on the legislation passed last year on predator status, which provides for 15 wolf packs statewide, including eight in Yellowstone National Park.
"A team of experts has looked at the plans and said they are adequate, although they didn't like Wyoming's plan as well as Idaho and Montana's. I think they would accept Wyoming's predator status, but they're afraid that Idaho and Montana would come back with similar plans," said Nuckolls. "Our hope is that we can get the Fish and Wildlife Service to accept our plan."
He added that the industry is "prepared to take this to the highest court we can."
His concern is that wolf interests not only want wolf packs in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana but in the rest of the Western states as well, which raises the stakes to predator loss for all sheep producers.
Given the current posture of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and environmentalist groups, McDonnell said he anticipates that the livestock industry will end up taking the wolf issue to litigation as well as to petition for delisting from experimental status under Section 10J of the Endangered Species Act.