Call for action: Sheep producers seek help in dealing with bird predation
Sheep producers in Northeast Wyoming, particularly those in and around Johnson County, are seeking assistance from local government officials in their fight against birds of prey.
At the forefront is 33-year-old James Curutchet, part owner and full-time operator of the historic Curutchet Ranch in Buffalo, where winged predators have decimated the lamb crop for years.
Since 2021, after losing 157 lambs and receiving compensation for only one-third of his losses at half price, Curutchet has been lobbying to anyone who will listen for change to indemnity programs in the upcoming farm bill.
Issues with the current indemnity program
Curutchet took over his family’s ranch in 2016, running a large flock of 500 sheep. However, after losing those 157 lambs two summers ago, his flock has continued to take huge hits.
“They didn’t die for no reason, and they were getting killed during the day, which is strange because most traditional predators, like coyotes, aren’t known to kill during the day,” he said. “But, at this point, there were two or three bald eagles, five or six golden eagles, five or six ravens and a couple of turkey vultures hanging around.”
All four of these species are protected by the government in two or three different ways – through the Lacey Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act – and since this makes it virtually impossible to implement any kind of control method, officials set up an indemnity program to compensate producers for their losses instead.
Curutchet explained all losses have to be reported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA), where they are entered into the indemnity program and evaluated by the board.
The paperwork is sent off to another committee which oversees the payout of livestock loss due to migratory and protected bird predation.
“This seems to be where the problem lies,” Curutchet stated, further noting in order to receive payout, producers have to prove each and every loss, usually by way of photos.
“The problem I had is there were so many birds, and they seemed to be hunting in a group,” he said. “First, I would see the bald eagles, then the golden eagles would come along and then there would be ravens and eventually vultures.”
“By the time I would get to the carcass, there wouldn’t be anything left, maybe a pile of wool and couple of bones, which makes it hard to photograph,” he added.
During this same year, Curutchet noted his live lambs sold at an average of $300 per head. After submitting information to FSA on the losses he could prove – only 57 and one-half of the 157 – Curutchet was only compensated half price per head.
“They only paid half price for one-third of the animals killed,” he stated.
Last year, the Curutchets felt some relief, with losses totaling around 10 to 12 head. However, this year, the flock took another big hit, losing 50 lambs in only three weeks, and only a portion of the carcasses have been found.
Curutchet noted he has been riding the pasture two to three times a day and has still only found 15 to 20 carcasses of the 50 animals he is missing. And while FSA has raised their payout, the situation simply isn’t sustainable for any producer.
“The payout is a little higher, but the market is currently averaging $220 to $230 per animal,” he said.
“For the wethers, it isn’t a big deal – a guy could probably make it work, but we keep all of our ewe lambs back as replacements and our herd is dwindling,” he added. “We are down to 200 animals this year, and a huge part of this is because the birds are killing them in massive amounts.”
At the rate Northeast Wyoming producers are losing lambs to birds of prey, with no means to mitigate damages and little compensation from the government, many are destined to go out of business within the next few years.
In fear of what his operation’s future holds – and those of his close friends, neighbors and fellow producers – Curutchet has been tirelessly brainstorming ways to solve the problem and has called upon government officials to help in his quest.
“I want to be clear – I am not out to kill them all. I don’t think exterminating them is the solution,” stated Curutchet. “They are accurate and efficient killers, and I think they are awesome and impressive.”
Instead, Curutchet believes changes should be made to the upcoming farm bill, especially in relation to indemnity program payouts. He has also suggested increasing the amount of relocation and falconer permits.
“The government issues six total eagle relocation permits in the entire U.S., and it is my understanding all six of those have come to Wyoming for the past three years,” he explained.
Curutchet shared he has been told one bird in the group serves as the leader and does most of the killing. If this bird is relocated, the others will likely stop killing and leave to go looking for their flockmate.
“It is my suggestion we should get the government to issue more of these permits because birds are such a huge problem right here in Wyoming,” he said.
“There are also some permits issued to falconers, who take the birds, rehabilitate them and give them something to do with their amazing skills,” he added, noting he believes more falconer permits should be issued in the state of Wyoming as well.
While permits may be an option for controlling the eagle population in Johnson County, Curutchet said it is most important for changes to be made to make the indemnity program in the farm bill fairer and more sustainable for sheep producers.
“If we had our sheep in the mountains and they were being killed by a mountain lion, the USDA would pay for three head per every one carcass found,” he shared. “Since birds are packing off part of the carcasses and because there are so many of them, they should be paying more to help sheep producers out.”
“I think working with the payout program so ranchers are compensated fairly for their losses is a great start in creating the change we all need to see,” he concluded.
Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.