Livestock and Predators: No Easy Answers
by Dan Macon of Auburn, CA
Since we’ve raised sheep commercially (and even when our sheep enterprise was a hobby), we’ve been committed to trying to live with the predators in our environment. Over the years, we’ve lost just a handful of sheep — several to coyotes, at least one each to mountain lions and rattlesnakes, and four in one night to a neighbor’s dog. Mostly, though, our commitment to nonlethal predator protection tools has worked. A combination of electric fencing, livestock guardian dogs, sheep selection and grazing management has allowed us to co-exist with the predators in our environment. However, as I talk with other sheep producers in California and elsewhere in the West (and even overseas via Facebook and Twitter), I realize that our approach won’t work for everyone. As we face the prospect of wolves returning to our part of the Sierra foothills in my lifetime, I’m even more convinced that there are no easy answers to the question of livestock-predator co-existence.
My first experience with coyote predation happened shortly after we moved to Auburn in 2001. One morning, we noticed that we were missing a feeder lamb. The rest of the sheep were bunched in a far corner of the pasture and kept looking to the other side of the field where an irrigation canal ran through our property. I checked the ditch, and found the dead lamb halfway under water. Its throat was torn out, and a portion of it had been eaten. We called the county trapper, who confirmed that it was a coyote.
Looking back on this incident, I realize several things — about predators and my attitudes toward them. First, we lost the value of the lamb that died — a direct economic loss. More than that, however, I suspect that the stress experienced by the other lambs caused a number of indirect economic costs (like a temporary drop in weight gain, for example). I also learned something about myself — I learned that had I observed the coyote in the act of killing or feeding on my lamb, I would have taken lethal action to stop it (that is, I would have shot it). I also learned that I couldn’t have brought myself to kill just any coyote — I would need proof that a specific, individual coyote was the culprit. In other words, I learned that I would take action to directly intervene in the death of my sheep, but I wasn’t comfortable taking random or preemptive action to prevent other coyotes from hunting my sheep. Later, when we lost the four ewes to a dog, I also realized that as much as I like dogs, I would shoot a dog in the act of killing my sheep (I didn’t take such action in this case, but the dog was impounded by Animal Control and the owner was required to make restitution).