The coyote is often depicted in Native American lore as a trickster. The sly younger brother of the wolf, the coyote deceives, yet teaches man about art and culture. Credited for bringing fire to man, the coyote has a more sinister side to its reputation. Some lore tells of danger, destruction, irresponsibility—of coyotes pervading the lives of those around them. Coyotes have, in a similar sense, sparked a current national debate as to the ethics and economics of how we view wildlife in North America.
On one hand, many researchers and activists are on the ground collecting data and publishing their findings in support of new control methods. Simultaneously, thousands of tax dollars are being funneled into federal trapping and gunning programs which are often successful only in the short term.
How Did They Become Such a Nuisance?
An informative packet by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife titled Living with Wildlife: Coyotes, describes coyotes as comparable in appearance to the German shepherd with similar pointed ears, slender muzzle, and a bushy tail. A typical coyote is about two feet tall at the shoulder, weighs 25 to 45 pounds, and has a “distinctive voice, consisting of various howls, high-pitched yips, and occasional dog-like barks.” Their coats vary by habitat but generally consist of tan, brown, grey, and black.
In the world of biological terminology, the coyote is known as a generalist species. Generalists are able to adapt to a variety of habitats, are capable of eating an array of foods, and are quick to respond to changes in environment. Other generalists include raccoons, skunks, and baboons—notice these are all common creatures found near human development and habitually regarded as nuisances.
As in economics, top-down and bottom-up are important concepts in the natural world. Similar to the trickle of money between the wealthy and destitute, these terms refer to the exertion of control by predators and prey. Simply put, large predator populations (like wolves and bears) can limit the growth of smaller competitors (like coyotes and martens), as the absence of a prey species can limit the growth of their respective predators. That being said, a plethora of research is taking place across the globe, and findings suggest a more complex mechanism.
“We sometimes are surprised by how just simply adding or removing one predator species can have these major cascading effects in the ecosystem,” said Oregon State researcher Dr. William J. Ripple of the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. Dr. Ripple and colleagues have undertaken a number of studies involving predators in Yellowstone National Park, after the reintroduction of grey wolves in 1995 and 1996.
During the 70 years that grey wolves were absent from Yellowstone, some curious changes took place. With their predation removed, populations of elk and other herbivores had elevated to the point where entire stands of aspen, cottonwood, and willow had been over-browsed. In repeated studies in the Lamar River catchment of the park’s northern winter range, Dr. Ripple and others found that in reintroducing wolves, populations of elk decreased, as well as browsing, while other species such as beavers and bison increased. An example of a trophic cascade, predation on elk made available vegetation which other species, like bison and beavers, were able to utilize.
Further research has found that apex predators, like wolves, hold mesopredators like coyotes in check. In Yellowstone, coyote ranges were found to be limited by wolf territory. Through direct competition and actively killing coyotes, wolves effectively managed coyote populations. “What we found through lots of places in North America where wolves are abundant [is that] coyotes exist at low numbers,” explained Dr. Ripple.
Apex predators in North America have been persecuted since time immemorial, but certainly since European settlers arrived with advanced weaponry and an ideology of compartmentalizing land. Indeed there are reports of promotional wolf-killing among New England colonies from the early to mid-1600s, a practice that only intensified with dreams of westward expansion. The cumulative effect of nearly 400 years of irresponsible hunting practices has led to the extirpation of wolf species all over the country and tentative entries on the Endangered Species list.
Having lifted the pressures exerted by wolves and other apex predators, coyotes not only thrived, they flourished.
In 2016, Coyotes Are Ubiquitous in the United States
Estimates of coyote damage in the United States range broadly, but a common number among sheep producers is 25% annual lamb mortality. US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports from all over the country show coyotes as the leading predator for both the sheep and cattle industries, with some reports citing coyotes as responsible for over 50% of statewide predation moralities. Ranchers and herders see thousands of dollars disappear while the industries as a whole are losing millions.
According to an Environmental Assessment report prepared by the USDA for the Roseburg District, agriculture makes up about 25% of Oregon’s economy with about $2.9 billion in annual sales. Of that $2.9 billion, 32% is derived from livestock production, with cattle and sheep contributing the most. The report goes on to say that of all livestock identified by the Animal Damage Control (ADC) program as being killed by predators, 61% were killed by coyotes. Cougars, bears, bobcats, and foxes combined accounted for 23%.
As you can imagine, coyotes can be quite unpopular and calls to Wildlife Services and the USDA to help control them are certainly understandable. Often this help comes in the form of hired hunters and trappers, poisons, and in some parts of the country, aerial gunning programs with estimated costs as high as $1,600 a head. In fact, an audit from the mid-90s of the USDA ADC by the Thoreau Institute in Oregon found that taxpayers annually pay about $36 million to the ADC to control predators.
The Thoreau Institute attested that the ADC was an egregious waste of money that only benefits select groups of people. But remember, while your tax dollars may be going to support animal control on someone else’s property, we all benefit from a healthy state economy.
“I was really concerned about what was going on in Benton County when I found out my tax money was going to support a county trapper,” said Randy Comeleo. Comeleo and his wife Pam live in the Oak Creek Watershed and have seen some changes beginning to take place in Corvallis.
Recounting the story of an “old-timer” sheep rancher, Comeleo noticed last year when a couple of livestock-guarding dogs appeared in his pasture. The man, who had been known to watch his field with a pair of binoculars and a rifle on his shoulder, explained that the snares he had been using just weren’t cutting it anymore. Although considering getting out of the industry altogether, the rancher decided, as a last-ditch effort, to give the dogs a try.
Later that year, the rancher told Comeleo that the predation of his lambs had stopped almost immediately. “In fact I knew his dogs were doing well because I talked to him last year and noticed his binoculars and rifle were gone.” Unfortunately there were a couple losses later in the year, but coyotes were not the prime suspects.
“There’s a whole group of people who want to adjust their behavior a little bit so we can coexist with these animals, because we think they are interesting and beautiful,” explained Comeleo. After discovering snares along the shared border with the OSU Sheep Center, the Comeleo family and others in their community decided to form an unofficial group, the Oak Creek Neighborhood Coalition. The coalition has engaged discussion among the community and with OSU about alternative and non-lethal control measures.
The group argues that snares are unsafe for humans and animals alike. “The traps and snares aren’t specific to just coyotes. They catch all animals within that general size range,” Comeleo said. Neighbors have found a number of animals in snares around their properties, and while the snares are checked, often an animal is left to die slowly.
Wanting to know just how much was being spent and what was being killed, Pam submitted a Freedom of Information request to Wildlife Services. “We got 10 years’ worth of data, so from 2004 to 2014, we got kill reports. We then also got budget information and basically just did the math.”
They found that the county was spending upwards of $21,000 a year on kill programs, and that in 10 years, 738 mammals were killed at an average cost of $293 per animal. Of the 738 mammals killed, 456 were coyotes. The coalition believes that by spending the $21,000 on developing longer-lasting techniques and by implementing non-lethal controls and education, we can be saving money in the long run.
Currently in Benton County’s 2015 to 2017 Adopted Biennium Budget, $25,000 has been allocated to animal damage control through USDA-APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service). This number increases to $29,866 for 2016 to 2017. Furthermore, money from the county road fund is providing payments into this program. But what is the county getting in return?
Benton County Budget Manager Pat Cochran explained that the USDA receives federal funding which provides the base for its operations. State funding is then added to the program so counties can buy into the USDA’s services. Counties that do not buy in don’t receive the full benefits, though local municipalities can buy in themselves.
Benton County no longer employs its own trapper, but the USDA has regional trappers or contractors who respond to calls. “The USDA gets the call and their employee deals with the animal, determines what to do or provides any advice,” said Cochran. While the county does fund animal control programs through the police and sheriff’s offices, those programs are aimed at pet licensing, abuse and neglect, or loose animals. USDA-APHIS funding targets nuisance animals that cause property damage, attack livestock, or threaten citizens.
More than just targeting nuisance animals, the USDA-APHIS funding supports people in making the best choices for their situation. “Some areas find it more valuable than others, both livestock owners and some timber companies have used the services from time to time,” said Cochran. The program also provides information for discouraging animals from entering a property, as well as for removing raccoons and skunks from under houses. As Cochran put it, “They run the gambit of stuff.”
The purpose of directing road funds into USDA funding is simple. We have a contract with them to dispose of roadkill. Plus they provide consulting for potential impacts to the roads, like flooding or washing out due to beaver dams. Unfortunately, lethal removal of beavers and nutria is another one of their specialties.
Right now there are a growing number of alternative and non-lethal predator controls, and a growing number of people willing to try them. Be it economic strain, a heavy heart, or just plain curiosity, people across the country are getting hip to the idea of saving money, saving lives, and saving time and effort.
Using guard dogs is “something that is not an uncommon practice here [in Oregon] and in other parts of the world. It has been a practice for a very long time,” said Dr. Monique Udell of the OSU Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences. Indeed one can hardly think of the term “domesticated” without thinking of both the dog and the cow. “If you drive up I-5 even now and look carefully, you can spot livestock-guarding dogs out with many of the sheep flocks.”
Udell explained that part of the reason livestock-guarding dogs are effective is that they are often of moderate build and lighter color so that they blend into the flock. “They will live outdoors. They will live with the sheep and eat with the sheep and be with the sheep. The sheep will essentially become their social companions,” she said. Furthermore, livestock-guarding dogs look to the sheep as a family unit. Their primary function is not necessarily to chase down coyotes, but ideally their presence alone acts as a deterrent.
Comeleo explained that portable electric net fencing and Foxlights are other notable non-lethal controls. The past manager of Bald Hill Farm told his former neighbor, Comeleo, that the fencing protected 100% of his sheep in the past. The Foxlight is a new “scare device” developed by a sheep and cattle farmer in Australia. “The light is erratic so it looks like a person walking through the pasture at night, so it’s very realistic,” he said. Foxlights are currently being tested on coyotes by Project Coyote in California, and on wolves by the Department of Fish and Wildlife in Oregon. Early evidence is suggesting that Foxlights are working.
“Proactive measures that prevent conflicts from happening in the first place are always more effective and economical than reactive measures,” said Cameleo. This concept applies to all aspects of our society, from health to law enforcement to international politics. It is not easy and never simple, but dedicated people can and do find solutions.
In nature, if there is a niche, there is a creature to fill that niche. When wolves were removed, coyotes not only occupied their own niche, they rose to fill that of the wolves. Despite coyote derbies, ADC programs, and the fact that coyotes are open season all year, they have managed to elude our best efforts to thwart them. Now we must ask ourselves if it would be worth more in the long run to coexist and restore ecosystem services where possible.
Dr. Ripple summed it up nicely: “Living with predators can be difficult for humans, especially when they have interest with livestock, but a big part of it is how tolerant humans are of predators. The more tolerant we are of these animals, the better it might be, because we start to learn about their important ecological effects.”
By Anthony Vitale