Balanced Animal Populations
Here on the farm, we wrestle with the proper approach for dealing with our resident predators. Specifically, the local coyotes. After 10 years of largely leaving the farm animals alone, the coyotes are now targeting farm animals as prey. This last winter we estimate that we lost one lamb and fifteen hens to coyotes. This level of depredation is not sustainable under current farm management practices.
As discussed in earlier posts, we anticipated that this problem would arise but, at the same time, we like our coyotes and wanted to find ways to have our coyotes and barnyard animals too. From trail camera pictures, we learned that our resident coyote pack consists of three animals: a breeding pair and a female helper. Their territory embraces the farm but excludes the area around the farmhouse and the barn. In the coyote perspective of territoriality, the house-barnyard enclave belongs to the dogs. Barley, with Libbey’s help, regularly lets the coyotes know that this is indeed dog territory and that they are not welcome here. But Barley can’t guard the grounds 24/7; she is a pet as well as a guard dog and she needs her time in the house laying around and interacting with the family. The wily coyotes have learned Barley’s habits and adjusted their behavior accordingly. They time their predatory incursions into the barnyard to those hours when Barley is on break from her guard duties.
As we try to devise a predator management plan for our little piece of the earth, the state of Washington is wrestling with a similar dilemma for the whole state. There is no consensus among people in the state as to what is the desired balance between predators and prey in any given situation.
For instance, in the Outdoors section of the Mar 18 edition of a regional newspaper, page one was all about reducing predator numbers (Black Bears) to relieve predation on elk calves and allow elk numbers to increase. In contrast, page two was devoted to enhancing predator numbers (Lynx) to re-establish the natural order of things.
Page one – How many bears can be harvested to reduce bear predation of elk calves and still maintain a viable bear population?
There are two groups that advocate for state-sponsored reduction in predator numbers: hunters and farmers/ranchers. Hunters see predators as competitors for favored game animals such as elk and deer – the more animals that are taken by predators, the fewer animals there are available to be taken by hunters. In addition, a population of predators represents another group of animals that could be hunted and thus, they represent the potential for more hunting opportunities until they are all gone. Farmers/ranchers see predators in a simpler light - they are a threat to their animal crop and, thus, they are a threat to their livelihood.
A vocal group of hunters is pressuring the Washington State Wildlife Commission to adopt a state-wide black bear spring hunting season both to reduce black bear predation of elk calves and to provide additional hunting opportunity. One of the commissioners said that commission action on this request cannot be made because the state’s black bear population estimate is unreliable. He would like Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists to compile reports that describe the minimum black bear abundances within defined geographic areas, their spatial and temporal variability, population trends, growth rate estimates, tallies of nonhunting forms of human-caused mortality, and serious injury. Then a calculation can be made of how many animals can be removed from that population before it’s at risk of falling below the optimum sustainable population level. None of this can be done with the current bear population estimate.
However, the Director of the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Department said his agency doesn’t have the budget or staff to produce those kinds of reports. The level of information requested by the commissioner exists for some animals, like elk that tend to winter in open country and can be easily counted through aerial surveys, and bighorn sheep that are also intensely followed and easily surveyed. But for many other animals that inhabit thick cover like black bears, the state relies largely on harvest data to estimate population strength and trends.
The commission voted not to have a spring black bear hunting season.
Page Two– Introducing Lynx into North Cascades and Kettle Mountains to restore an extirpated piece of the natural world.
There are several groups that oppose the hunter-rancher coalition for reducing predators and advocate instead for restoring predators to their original abundance. These include wildlife advocates of all stripes and, most importantly for cultural and spiritual reasons, Native American tribes. The page 2 newspaper article, covering the release of a BC-captured lynx into Washington’s Kettle Mountains, quoted a Colville Tribal member as saying - “The lynx is a missing piece of who we are. And it’s connected to the landscape. ... Every little bit counts. Every little bit has meaning.”
The Colville Confederated Tribes released nine lynx in the 2021-22 season, each one outfitted with a tracking collar that will allow biologists to see where they go, where they settle and when — or if — they reproduce. The tribe’s senior wildlife biologist said the reintroduction project is biologically and culturally important. The tribe’s fish and wildlife management plan has a goal of reintroducing and re-establishing wildlife populations that have been removed or extirpated to establish as natural a landscape as possible.
The tribe’s lynx reintroduction is modeled on efforts by a Seattle-based conservation organization that has been relocating and releasing lynx in the wilds of the Cascade Mountains. The Cascade Mountains, which run north to south from Canada into Oregon, provide plenty of great lynx habitat and, perhaps just as important, provide a corridor connecting wildlands containing struggling lynx populations in the U.S. to wildlands with healthier and more robust lynx populations in British Columbia. Like the Cascades, the Kettle Mountains, where the tribe’s lynx reintroduction is taking place, have lots of potential lynx habitat and are geographically connected to lynx populations in Canada.
In these two newspaper articles, we see much of the conflict that state wildlife commissions and departments must contend with in predator management; a strong voice to reduce or eliminate predators and a strong voice to restore and even enhance predator numbers. In a sense, we face some of these same conflicts on the farm – protect our farm animals while maintaining and enjoying all the natural life (including predators) that makes this place special.
Jay will be the decider of which route will be followed on the farm. Here are some of the options open to him:
1. Live with it – Replace the farm animals taken by the coyotes with an overabundance of new animals every year. That is, the farm animals are raised for meat and eggs for ourselves and a few friends and relatives plus for the coyotes. This might be OK if we continue to deal with only a small coyote pack of three and they use farm animals only as a supplement to the major component of their diet which is small wild mammals and birds, fruit, insects, and assorted vegetables. But if food is aplenty, the pack will grow and the problem of coyote predation will grow along with it.
2. Kill the coyotes – The coyotes can be killed, but as a predator management plan, this won’t work. Killing a coyote weakens the pack and breaks the strength of exclusion of other coyotes from the already established pack territory. The farm is well connected to surrounding coyote-rich areas and new animals would quickly find their way into the new undefended territory. Furthermore, killing a few breeders in a coyote population supposedly increases the fecundity of the overall population and with increased reproduction, the predation issue just gets larger. We would be faced with a never-ending process of needing to kill coyotes regularly. The thought of killing our current coyotes and then regularly killing more is repugnant to us.
3. Build coyote-proof enclosures – This is too expensive to apply to the whole farm. Current fencing is not coyote proof but the coyotes seem to understand that the fences represent a boundary that once crossed puts them in some sort of peril – the coyotes are often observed sitting or standing on their side of the boundary fence watching what is taking place on our (the dog’s) side of the fence. When a coyote does cross the boundary and is confronted on our side of the fence, it quickly escapes to its side of the fence. A small coyote-proof chicken pen is possible but it would confine the chickens and thus, deprive them of a substantial quantity and variety of rich foods that they obtain from free-ranging on the pastures.
4. Get another guard dog – Ellen just got a new puppy. The pup is being trained by Barley and shows some early promise of maybe becoming a second guard dog. However, true livestock guarding requires that the dog live with the livestock and becomes one of them rather than being part of the pack in the human household. It is likely that all dogs on this farm will be incorporated into the human household rather than trained as barn-oriented, farm animals.
Likely, Jay will adopt some combination of parts of options 1 and 3.
Meanwhile, we will content ourselves by knowing that this is not only a contemporary wildlife-management problem but is also an age-old problem of rural life. The human conflict with natural predators is celebrated in a 15thcentury English folk song:
The fox went out on a chilly night, he prayed to the Moon to give him light, for he'd many a mile to go that night before he reached the town-o, town-o, town-o, he had many a mile to go that night before he reached the town-o.
He ran till he came to a great big bin where the ducks and the geese were put therein. "A couple of you will grease my chin before I leave this town-o, town-o, town-o, a couple of you will grease my chin before I leave this town-o."
He grabbed the grey goose by the neck, threw the grey goose behind his back; he didn't mind their quack, quack, quack, and their legs all a-dangling down-o, down-o, down-o, he didn't mind their quack, quack, quack, and their legs all a-dangling down-o.
Old Mother pitter patter jumped out of bed; out of the window she cocked her head, Crying, "John, John! The grey goose is gone and the fox is on the town-o, town-o, town-o!" Crying, "John, John, the grey goose is gone and the fox is on the town-o!"
Then John he went to the top of the hill, blew his horn both loud and shrill, the fox he said, "I'd better flee with my kill He’ll soon be on my trail-o, trail-o, trail-o." The fox he said, "I'd better flee with my kill He’ll soon be on my trail-o."
He ran till he came to his cozy den; there were the little ones eight, nine, ten. They said, "Daddy, better go back again, 'cause it must be a mighty fine town-o, town-o, town-o!" They said, "Daddy, better go back again, 'cause it must be a mighty fine town-o."
Then the fox and his wife without any strife cut up the goose with a fork and knife. They never had such a supper in their life and the little ones chewed on the bones-o, bones-o, bones-o, they never had such a supper in their life and the little ones chewed on the bones-o.
We can expect that our coyote problem will continue to confront us on into the future. Its value is in its role as a reflective conundrum that arises when attempts are made to find a balance between the values and joy brought into our lives by both wild and domestic animals.