March 13, 2011
The News-Review, Oregon
Douglas County farmers and ranchers may lose more livestock to predators
By Craig Reed
Under the cover of darkness, a coyote wriggles under a fence.
In the early morning fog, a cougar prowls a county road.
In broad daylight, beavers dam up a culvert.
Meanwhile, bears break into buildings and cars in search of food. Bobcats eat chickens. Skunks, raccoons and opossums cause mischief.
These are common scenarios in Douglas County and throughout much of Oregon. They result in dead livestock, missing pets and damaged property.
Who you gonna call?
For decades the answer has been Wildlife Services, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But Wildlife Services may not answer the call in late spring and early summer.
Because of a $35,000 budget shortfall, Wildlife Services may furlough its three trappers in Douglas County for May and June, when lambs and calves are particularly vulnerable.
Farmers and ranchers who rely on the trappers hope to raise about $10,000 and are looking to Douglas County commissioners to kick in the rest to see the program through the current fiscal year.
In the long run, however, they say the trapping program needs a stable source of funding to protect livestock and to prevent increasingly active predators from venturing into more populated areas.
"People's dogs and cats will be next," said Roseburg-area rancher Dan Dawson.
In the 1980s, there were not six rather than three trappers in Douglas County. Ranchers say that while the number of trappers has declined, the number of predators has increased, partly because of bans on hunting the animals with dogs or entrapping them with bait.
As they've become more numerous, predators have had to search farther and wider for food, and they've found easy meals in pastures. Their numbers have also decreased the deer population, a main food source for coyotes and cougars.
With fewer trappers available, ranchers have tried guardian dogs and llamas to discourage predators. They've deployed noise-making devices and built sturdier fences, sometimes electrifying them. Some ranchers carry rifles in case they see a predator during the day, though most attacks occur at night.
"These are not cure-alls, so then we call Wildlife Services for help," Dawson said. "They're (trappers) very good at their job. They're professionally trained."
The stakes are particularly high in Douglas County. Cattle and sheep are a $20 million industry in the county, according to the Oregon Agriculture Information Network.
Douglas County is the second-largest sheep-producing county in the state. The county boasts 25,000 ewes, and the American Sheep Industry estimates every 1,000 head of ewes are responsible for 18 full- and part-time jobs. The county's sheep population swells to 60,000 with lambs born between December and March. Most of the 356 livestock killed by predators in Douglas County in 2010 and reported to Wildlife Services were sheep.
"We're not asking for a lot for what we put back into the county," said Douglas County Livestock Association President Doug Singleton, a Glide-area cattle and sheep rancher. "The property taxes we pay, plus the income, it's in the millions of dollars, and what we want is pretty minor."
The Douglas County Farm Bureau already has contributed $5,500 to keep the trappers working in May and June. The Douglas County Livestock Association has added $1,000 to the cause.
Douglas County Farm Bureau President Larry Williams, a cattle rancher, said he hoped the bureau's contribution will inspire businesses and individuals to give. "We're hoping other people will jump in and help out," he said.
Farmers and ranchers say they shouldn't bear alone the cost of preventing wildlife from killing livestock, eating crops, damaging property and even threatening humans.
"Wildlife is publicly owned, so the public shares a responsibility in controlling wildlife damage," Dawson said.
Currently, the county supplies more than half of the Wildlife Services' $221,000 budget to employ and equip the three trappers. Federal and state agencies contribute smaller amounts. The budget shortfall is a combination of reduced money from the county over previous years and not enough contracted work from other agencies.
Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson predicted the trappers won't be furloughed.
"We recognize the agricultural industry is one of our mainstays, so we want to continue to support it," he said. "I'm confident we'll get through the current year without any changes."
The bigger challenge, Robertson said, will be in the following years. If the federal government reduces payments that compensate Douglas County for revenue it loses due to restrictions on logging on federal lands, "then we may have to make some different choices," Robertson said.
Farmers and ranchers have been meeting with state agencies and the Association of Oregon Counties to discuss ways to stabilize funding for trapping programs throughout the state. Twenty-seven full-time trappers and two part-time trappers work in 28 Oregon counties.
Ranchers have talked about following the examples of other states and levying a per-head tax on livestock to support trapping. Klamath Falls Sen. Doug Whitsett has introduced Senate Bill 584, which would require a percentage of the money received from hunting licenses and tags be set aside for predator control.
Besides being an economic problem, predation is a public-safety issue, trappers and livestock owners say.
Dawson and Singleton said ranchers and trappers are protecting urban areas by controlling predators.
"We're cutting off coyote and cougar problems from getting into town," said Dawson, noting trapper Mark Dowdy recently caught a cougar within sight of Sunshine Park on the eastern edge of Roseburg.
Dowdy had been working to get that cat for a week or so before a rural resident reported seeing it.
Last year, bear scat was found on the grounds of Eastwood School in east Roseburg.
"If our program doesn't exist to stop problems on agricultural land, we won't be here to stop problems in town," said Michael Burrell, the supervisory wildlife biologist for Wildlife Services in Douglas County
Ranchers say they expect wolves to eventually find their way to Douglas County.
"The wolves will be here in a couple of years, and we're going to be in big trouble if we have no (trapping) program then," Singleton said. "If the wolves are here and nobody is here to control them, it's going to get ugly. We've already got enough trouble dealing with coyotes and cougars."
Dawson, who has sheep on several pieces of land in central Douglas County, said that livestock producers can't afford to lose the trapping program. Ranchers can't write off the potential income of lambs and calves lost on their property to predators and insurance policies on livestock are rare and expensive, he said.
"That's why we've fought so hard for it. More people will get out of the (livestock) business if we don't have predator control," he said. "Sheep prices are high, and there's a demand for it (meat), so there's a lot of room for people to get into the sheep business, but without these guys (trappers), none of us will be in business."
You can reach News-Review reporter Craig Reed at 541-957-4210 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.