Predator control: ASI provides nonlethal predator control research updates
“Sheep producers across the U.S. and worldwide deal with a litany of challenges, and one of those challenges, which has remained a constant thorn in the side of sheep producers throughout history, is predator control,” states Jake Thorne, host of the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) Research Update podcast.
In the November and December episodes of the podcast, Thorne sits down with Dr. John Tomececk of Texas A&M University and Dan Macon of the University of California Cooperative Extension for a two part series on lethal and nonlethal predator control research projects.
The first episode of the series focuses on nonlethal predator control.
Tomececk begins the discussion by explaining some of his current research, which looks at how and why predator territories are established.
“Essentially, producers usually have some traditional knowledge about predator territories. But, I caution folks in the West because they like to lump their knowledge about coyote territories with their knowledge about wolves, and they are not the same,” he states.
Tomececk says he would describe coyote territories as durable, citing studies conducted in southeast Texas in 1970 and 2000, which showed nearly identical coyote territories in regards to size and shape.
“I think it is important for people to understand coyotes are very plastic to the world going on around them,” he says. “If there are a lot of coyotes sharing an area, their territories will shrink in size to about 200 or 300 acres, and they will pack themselves in like eggs in an egg carton.”
“On the other hand, if there are areas with limited resources or a lot of trapping activity, those territories can blow up to around 10 square miles or more,” Tomececk adds.
Additionally, Tomececk notes coyote reproduction has a lot to do with how many are around.
“If there are only a few coyotes in a large area, a female can rear up to 13 pups a year. She will come into heat and breed up every year,” he explains. “In densely packed areas, we will see only one or two of 25 females come into heat and whelp pups.”
Although the overlap in coyote territories and sheep production is not unusual, Tomececk and Macon agree killing livestock is either learned or opportunistic behavior.
“Most predators aren’t as concerned about what they are eating, as long as it is cheap and easy because they have to worry about the amount of energy they are using and storing,” Tomececk says. “The alternatives available, the abundance of these alternatives and the pressure they feel is what will ultimately determine if a coyote makes a meal out of livestock.”
Tomececk further explains his studies have shown if coyotes are pressured into preying on livestock and they receive positive reinforcement from the experience, they may learn sheep and goats can be a reliable source of food.
“I think most of it is opportunistic, but these opportunities can also turn into learned behavior,” he states.
Macon adds, “In my personal experience, I think the most productive train of thought for a producer is understanding not all coyotes eat sheep and goats and then focus on managing the problematic ones.”
“In the same way livestock producers select and breed for different traits, by getting rid of predators who have learned eating livestock is a positive experience, we are left with animals that are benign from a producer’s perspective,” Macon continues.
Nonlethal control methods
According to Tomececk and Macon, there are a number of nonlethal predator control methods producers can utilize when running sheep in coyote territory and/or dealing with problem coyotes.
Macon says these methods can be divvied into three categories – managerial tools, mechanical tools and biological tools.
Managerial tools, according to Macon, include timing of lambing season, removing dead stock from the operation and keeping pastures free of bones and other things that might attract scavengers.
Mechanical tools include things like electric fence, box lights and noise makers, says Macon.
“Biological tools include livestock guardian dogs, llamas and donkeys,” he notes. “These can be of real benefit because they can think for themselves, adapt to certain situations and make their own decisions.”
Tomececk agrees biological tools are one of the most efficient forms of nonlethal control.
“Livestock guardian animals can be used for both dissuasion and disruption,” he says. “They are very good at discerning threatening situations from non-threatening situations, and dogs in particular, have a very effective escalation strategy.”
Tomececk says this means if the initial barking doesn’t work to dissuade predators from getting too close to the flock, dogs will escalate their strategy to be more productive and possibly more lethal.
“Deciding what methods to use depends on individual circumstances,” notes Macon. “Being aware of the environment as well as wildlife and sheep behavior drives what tools are going to work in a particular situation.”
Tomececk chimes in, “Regardless of the nonlethal control method used, producers need to remember they are dealing with a dynamic animal interacting with a dynamic world. This means they need to be ready to change and adapt as the predators they are dealing with change and adapt as well.”
Hannah Bugas is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.