Coyote-Kill Programs Don't Protect U.S. Farms, Study Finds

Nicholas Bakalar
for National Geographic News
March 28, 2006
Predator-control programs are very effective at killing coyotes, but
they do little to help the United States sheep farmers they are designed
to protect, according to a new study.

Black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions, bobcats, and wolves have been effectively removed from most U.S. farming areas, leaving coyotes as the top livestock predators.

(Related news: "Are Coyotes Becoming More Aggressive?")

To protect sheep from coyotes, U.S. federal, state, and local governments—along with private livestock associations—have killed about 80,000 coyotes a year in recent decades, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But these efforts have not prevented a dramatic decline in domestic sheep populations—and the sheep industry—over the past 60 years, according to a report in the March issue of Conservation Biology.

The theory behind predator control is that reducing the number of carnivores will decrease livestock losses. But it's economic conditions that are pushing sheep numbers down, not predators, the new study says.

Kim Murray Berger—a conservation scientist with the Bronx, New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)—authored the study.

She used historical data to establish that the most important factor in the number of sheep produced over time is the price of the animals' main food, hay. The study says that 56 percent of the variation, year to year, is attributable to this alone.

Farmhand wages and the prices farmers receive for their lambs account for another 21 percent of the variation, according to the analysis.

The amount of money spent to control predators contributes about 6 percent to changes in sheep numbers.

Peter Orwick is the executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI). He agrees that there are many factors that affect the profitability of sheep farming. But he sees predator losses as among the most important.

Citing a report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, he said that "predator losses, even with the predator [control] programs, represent over 37 percent of the losses in the industry."

The numbers that WCS's Berger found make her skeptical about the significance of predator control in the economics of sheep farming. But she doesn't dismiss predators completely as a threat to the industry.

"There are absolutely circumstances in which removing an animal that is causing predation losses will save some sheep," she said. "So this is really a question of what we hope to achieve by investing public resources to control predators.

"If the goal is to kill carnivores, then we've clearly been very successful. But if the goal is to actually help sheep ranchers earn a living and stay in business," she continued, "then I think we're targeting the wrong problem.

"You've had a [predator control] program in place for over 60 years, and you've lost 85 percent of the sheep producers," Berger said.

Again, Orwick disagrees.

"Clearly, the program does work in helping minimize losses, and it does it without significantly impacting the predator population," the ASI director said.

"That coyotes are the primary predator is not a 'perception' issue. Coyotes cause the majority of predator losses to sheep operations."

Orwick maintains that eliminating predator management "would take the predator losses of today—37 percent—and move it up so that 80 or 90 percent of all losses would be due to predators.

"I don't understand what the reasoning would be to take predator management out of the picture."

If predator control isn't having a great impact, as WCS's Berger says, could it be because not enough coyotes are being killed?

"It would be fair for sheep farmers to say that the program doesn't work because we're simply not killing enough coyotes," Berger said. "But that doesn't explain why you see the same trends in sheep production in areas where you have coyotes and areas where you don't. They're virtually identical."

Times have changed, according to Berger.

"It's important to keep in mind that, at the time that the predator-control program was conceived, public feeling in the country about large carnivores was quite different," she said.

"We were interested in civilizing the landscape and making it beautiful for humans only. That's changed. A lot of people are looking for a place where they can get away from civilization and experience nature and wildlife," Berger said.

"Maybe it's time to revisit our policy of controlling predators and also revisit what it is we're doing to help livestock producers, since what we're currently doing doesn't seem to be working."

ASI's Orwick sees predator control from a different perspective.

"I don't know of one magic solution to eliminate conflict between wildlife management and agriculture," he said.

"I argue that farmers and ranchers subsidize the public and the public's wildlife by providing private land and property for coyotes to make their living. Therefore, the public has a responsibility to assist in limiting or managing the severity of the damage and loss of private property."

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