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.
We’re in a predator rich environment, primarily coyote, but occasion bear, wolves, cougar, bald eagles. We’ve lost a couple calves to coyotes, always 1-3 days of age. The coyotes at least are very territorial, once they learn to hunt lambs, will continue to do so and need to be removed, if they do not learn this, the keep other coyotes away.
The combination of electric fencing, frequent moves in a mob, and Livestock Guarding Dog living with the flock keeps this practically non-existent.
I’ve been on other grazing operations in the SW part of the state that have had significant losses to wolves and cougars for both calves and sheep.
The only black bear incident we’ve personally experienced was a bear tearing the milk filled udder off a close up ewe.
Bald eagles (and now Golden Eagles) forced use to give up on pasture lambing, only the new borns seem to be most vulnerable. The guards dogs did not see this as threat.
The fox we have on the farm have never been an issue.
Predators are part of the system and not all bad. Just have learn to manage their presence.
Excellent piece John.
My response to people that ask to hunt coyotes on our land is to deny permission because I want to protect the coyotes that know to respect the electrified fence around our sheep. They defend their territory and keep other coyotes away. They have plenty of small rodents to eat, and I have observed them boldly walking through the pastures past the sheep paddocks with neither group reacting.
I heard an Iowa sheep producer talk about how coyotes and most other predators are territorial. If your predators are well fed otherwise and leave your livestock alone then they are also helping defend your livestock by keeping similar species out.
I’m also a big fan of electrified fence and have run goats in heavy timber where our game cameras showed coyotes, bobcats, hounds chasing the coyotes etc. We never lost a goat to predation, lost a few to lightening.
My goal has always been to work with creation, rather than fighting it. It takes too much energy, money and effort to fight and fitting our efforts into the ecosystem result in less efforts, higher profit, and greater happiness in every case that I can think of after 37 years of working throughout the middle part of the U.S.
Thank you for an interesting and honest article. All ranchers in our area face living with predators every day especially sheep and goat ranchers and anyone who raises chickens. Too often the urge to shoot anything that MIGHT be a threat seems ithe right answer. Our Extension Service actively performs scientific research and offers Predator Management courses to provide ranchers with options that can be more cost effective and successful than tradtional ‘shoot them all’ methods. I am glad that we are realizing that our ecosystems need a balance of predator and prey and we are working to learn how to support that balance AND be able to make a living while ranching. It is not an easy issue that is for sure. Thank you again. Looking forward to more of your articles
We live in central British Columbia. Our chickens are in covered runs; otherwise coyotes or foxes would get them. Goshawks catch our “scrub” pigeons (which we don’t mind) but rarely adult chickens even when the run isn’t covered. Any chicks or partly-grown chickens without roof wire over the pens will be eaten by ravens.
Wolves live nearby but never both our few cattle. Black bears have twice been in our chicken coop but each time because we didn’t have a dog on the yard to chase them away. When we have a non-roaming dog, the dog keeps a perimeter of about 150 yards free of bears. Outside of that, they are free to graze in the hayfield. We rather like seeing them around. We have no experience of eagle predation, nor have we heard of it in this area; almost all eagles here are bald eagles and they eat fish and carrion.
I appreciate the viewpoint in your article. Thank you.
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