Last month On Pasture asked: “What’s the best way to protect your livestock from predators?” and provided information from the Livestock-Predator Hub as food for thought. Turns out, On Pasture author John Marble has been thinking about predators for a long time. I hope you enjoy his thoughts.
My relationship with predators goes way back. At the age of nine, I began protecting the family ranch by trying to shoot any animal that might fairly be called a “varmint”. The list was long: coyote, fox, raccoon, mink, nutria, musk rat, chicken hawk, falcon, opossum, weasel, blue jay, kestrel, starling, sparrow and on and on and on. Eagles? Well, truth be told, we didn’t have any eagles back then. Now, those lamb-snatchers are everywhere. Makes me glad I don’t have lambs.
Funny how things change. Nowadays, it’s a fairly frequent occurrence for a car to pull into the driveway, a rattled driver trotting to the door to tell me that there are some coyotes roaming around a field within sight of the highway. Oh! And there are some cows in that field, too. Often, there are offers to run home and get a rifle. Next comes the look of absolute confusion when I explain that the coyotes are just part of the deal here, that they’re just hunting mice anyway, that…no…“We don’t shoot ‘em.”
I’ve quit shooting all those other varmints, too. Turns out, I kind of like having the hawks and weasels around. And the starlings? Well, heck, I’ve recently become a bit enamored with them, too.
So, what’s happened around here to change my view of predators?
The number of predators hasn’t decreased. In fact, I live in a predator-rich environment. The biologists tell us that the populations of cougar and bear are growing and are significantly higher than twenty or thirty years ago. (The use of dogs for hunting these predators was outlawed in Oregon in 1994.) Coyotes are common residents here and we see and hear them all the time. And I believe our place has the highest density of avian predators of any ranch in our area.
Yet, to my knowledge, we have never lost one cow or calf to a predator.
Now, I should admit to my limitations: I have primarily raised cattle. We have had meat goats, maybe ten different years or so, although we have none right now. I have been around horses a bit, dogs and cats and chickens, plus a few skirmishes with almost-livestock like guinea hens and peacocks. But mostly, cows. My brethren who raise sheep have a completely different set of problems to deal with, and I don’t envy them one little bit.
To be honest, I did lose one goat to a mountain lion about ten years back, but that was when I placed some goats in an in-defensible location. As soon as I moved that herd, there was no more predation.
So, how can this be? How can we live and ranch in a high-density predator zone and not lose animals to predators? Frankly, I don’t know, at least not for certain. But I have some ideas.
Interactions of Predators, Prey and Our Management
First, let’s understand our “enemy.” Predators are good at what they do. They are designed to catch, bite, kill. Sharp claws and teeth help. Still, all predators have limitations and specialties.
Cougars (Mountain Lions) are generally solitary hunters that stalk or ambush their prey, rather than getting involved in long chases. They select a single target to stalk or wait in place to ambush their prey. They are certainly capable of taking down a bovine if they wanted to.
I have seen many cougar kills over the years. All of them were single Blacktail deer, taken in fairly dense forested areas, within rifle range of our grazing paddocks. My conclusion is that cougar are very active hunters in my neighborhood, but they don’t seem to bother our cattle.
Coyotes skulk around, sniffing for dinner, pouncing on rodents beneath the snow or hidden in the grass. On the other hand, they will (apparently) eat just about anything when they are hungry. They weigh about 30 pounds in my neighborhood. It is difficult for me to imagine a single coyote taking anything beyond a very young calf.
I recall a sunny afternoon many years ago when I sat on a bluff and watched a pair of coyotes hunting mice. They started at one end of the meadow and proceeded to zigzag right through a herd of half-asleep cows and calves. The cattle paid absolutely no mind to the coyotes. At that moment I realized that the cattle felt less threat from coyotes than from my own domestic dogs.
As for bears, we only have modest-sized Blacks, and based on what I’ve seen, they rarely descend from the safety of the dense forests. Black bears are omnivores and opportunists, but much of their diet is actually plant-based. I find evidence of bears occasionally, places where they are stripping cambium or digging for grubs. Once again, these sites are very close to our grazing lands. Yet, I have never seen a bear track on our pastures, although they do occasionally mark up the trees within shotgun range of the cattle.
(We won’t address wolves yet. That’s for another day.)
Now, I’m not suggesting that cattle are never killed and eaten by cougar or bear or coyote. I think they probably are on occasion. And I believe that in some places, coyotes probably hunt in organized packs and are more problematic for ranchers than they are for me.
Here’s one thing I’m certain of: some ranches suffer much more predation than others, and I don’t mean ranches in different places or elevations or degree of remoteness. It seems like some folks just have more predator trouble than others. So, here’s a difficult question:
Why do some ranches suffer higher predator conflict rates than other ranches?
My response to the question is the same as my response to most problems we have in ranching: there are probably differences in management that result in different outcomes for different ranches. In other words, the methods or styles we choose as herdsmen probably influence how much trouble we have with predators.
Part of the answer is Predator/Prey interactions. Prey animals often live in intense social groups: herds, flocks, schools. Over the course of my life I have often observed what happens to individuals that fail to stay inside of the protective group: they are immediately taken by predators. In my own experience as a bird hunter, I can tell you that a single bird that peels away from the flock is immediately the primary target. This is the way predators react – they always take the single.
I believe if we place livestock in environments where they are single, isolated targets, they are much more likely to be taken by predators. Ranches that scatter their livestock across large, extensive landscapes (particularly in ecosystems that provide camouflage for predators like cougars or bears) will suffer higher levels of predation then ranches that keep their livestock in tight groups.
So, in answer to the earlier question about how we manage to exist in a predator-rich environment, yet suffer no significant losses, the answer is simple: we manage our cattle in large, dense groups, which makes them very unattractive targets for coyotes, cougars, bears. If we were to simply turn the cattle up on the hill and then round them up in the fall, we would probably see significant predation.
If killing predators is the goal, I predict a long and unsuccessful battle. Think about our battle with the coyote: there are now more coyotes spread over a wider range than at any time in history. This, despite the fact that we have been shooting, trapping, poisoning and generally killing them as fast as we possibly can. Obviously, a different strategy is called for.
Today, society at large is making decisions to support predators as part of the ecosystem. We can participate in those debates and work to ensure that livestock protection is considered as part of these decisions. But we will likely need to adapt our management as well. My suggestion is that we need to present predators with a situation that is less attractive.