by Cliff Thompson
EAGLE COUNTY – “My guess is we probably don’t have any more today than 30 years ago,” said Bill Andelt, a Colorado State University ecology professor. “In the 1940s and ’50s the use of toxicants reduced their numbers.”
Andelt said aerial gunning is a particularly effective tool because it can target specific breeding pairs. It is used mostly in mid to late winter when coyotes are easy to spot against the snow.
“Those animals near the flock are territorial animals and it’s usually those that cause the damage,” he said.
Andelt, who has studied coyotes and predation since 1985, said it will take a variety of lethal and non-lethal methods to prevent livestock losses to predators.
Wendy Keefover Ring of Sinapu, an organization seeking to restore native carnivores to the Rockies, said livestock producers should try new methods.
Mixing cattle and sheep, using burrows and llamas – which ward off predators such as coyotes – and new types of fencing can be effective, she said.
Livestock producers should also take care to remove the carcasses of animals that have died naturally so they don’t attract more predators who could then become habituated to preying on domestic livestock, she said. Many already do that, and still suffer losses to predators, she said.
Sheep and lambs are most vulnerable during lambing season in late spring, which is also when most predators have young and an increased demand for food. She said that predation is responsible for 4 percent of all livestock deaths.
“We’ve been trying to kill coyotes for 150 years using guns and poison,” Ring said. “Terminal control doesn’t work. We have to think outside the box.”
Philosophical middle ground?
EAGLE COUNTY – Early last spring when residents in the Horse Mountain subdivision five miles north of Wolcott, saw an airplane flying low overhead and heard someone shooting from it, they knew something wasn’t quite right.
The land they own is ruled by homeowner covenants that prohibit discharging firearms, yet someone was shooting out of this plane.They wanted to know what was going on and why someone was shooting. A few phone calls later they found out.
The plane and gunner belonged to Animal Damage Control, a public and private program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The airplane and gunner were spotting and shooting coyotes. In Eagle County it occurs at the request of ranchers mostly north of Wolcott in winter and spring on public and private land.
But the plane shouldn’t have been flying over that subdivision.
Gunners fly five to 10 mornings a year over Eagle County and kill up to 35 coyotes, according to David Moreno, who heads the program in northwestern Colorado. They kill coyotes and other predators when ranchers want action.
This controversial program is decried by environmentalists and animal rights organizations, but is one that sheep and cattlemen say is necessary. It’s a practice on which there seems to be no philosophical middle ground.
Predators vs. profit
“The idea of government funding to kill animals without much analysis on the effect on the balance of nature is really controversial,” said Rocky Smith of Colorado Wild, a Boulder-based animal habitat and preservation organization.
But for Julie Hansmire of the Hansmire Campbell Sheep Company, which grazes several thousand head of sheep across the vast backcountry of Eagle County each summer, aerial gunning – when needed – is something that works. Her sheep spend the winter on the range in eastern Utah.
Hansmire said that up to 5 percent of her lambs each season are lost to coyotes and other predators despite use of guard dogs and other non-lethal measures. With the razor-thin profit margin of most agricultural operations, each animal lost means lost profit.
“Most people don’t understand it,” she said. “It’s a really effective tool especially if you’re having kills every night. If they were owners, they would completely understand it. To us, coyotes are thieves.”
Thieves or not, the program, which started in 1915, has outlived its usefulness, said Wendy Keefover Ring of Sinapu, an organization seeking to restore native carnivores to the Rockies.
Wolves and grizzly bears were wiped out by government trappers more than 50 years ago following programs aimed at controlling the amount of livestock lost to the predators.
“It’s expensive and used to kill public wildlife – it’s not very successful,” she said. “When coyotes are persecuted by humans they change breeding strategies. It’s a big waste of taxpayer money and really inhuman.”
Ring said when a dominant male coyote is killed, it creates chaos in coyote societies, causing younger males to breed more often with more females, creating more demand for territory and, often as not, it creates more, not fewer, coyotes.
But Moreno said Ring’s theory hasn’t been proven and said more research is needed to prove or disprove it. He said he’s certain of what his program can achieve.
“If we take out a breeding pair before the pups are born, you decrease the (livestock) damage substantially,” he said. “When the young are born, adult coyotes can kill two or three lambs a night.”
It’s not indiscriminate gunning, Moreno said. The pilots and shooters fly specific grids where livestock will be grazing and shoot coyotes there.
Recently they’ve even begun to maintain a lookout for wolves, which they will report to other wildlife authorities.
A young female wolf was killed in traffic 30 miles west of Denver after traveling more than 500 miles from its home pack in Yellowstone National Park. The last Colorado wolf was killed in 1945 in southern Colorado.
Funding for the predator control program is shared. Wool growers contribute a portion of the expense while taxpayers pick up the rest. Moreno estimated the activities in Eagle County cost less than $10,000 annually.
Keefover Ring said the program costs taxpayers $20 million nationally.
For humans it’s an emotional issue and one destined to continue because coyotes are so intelligent and quickly learn to adapt to new situations.
“Not all methods of control work under all situations,” said Bill Andelt, a Colorado State University range ecology professor. Even guard dogs are only partially successful.
“After these dogs are out on the range for a while, coyotes kind of figure them out,” he said. “Most ranchers start out with a couple of guard dogs and now they need four or five.”
Coyotes also get used to bright lights, sirens and noise makers designed to scare them off. “They’re effective for a month and then coyotes get used to them and come back,” he said.
Adding to the debate, is a change in public opinions about predators and how to control them.
“Livestock producers have lost quite a few tools,” Andelt said. “At one time they had the use of toxicants that were pretty effective. In 1996 (Colorado) voters passed a referendum limiting use of snares and traps.”
Keefover Ring said aerial gunning has increased since the trapping was banned.
Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 450, or email@example.com