Non-lethal solutions to ranching with wildlife
Photo by Keli Hendricks.
Most of us living in Sonoma County see the smaller predators, i.e., skunks, raccoons, opossums, on a fairly regular basis and have learned to live with them pretty well. Ranchers not only have those animals to deal with but larger predators too, such as coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions. Large predators can attack unprotected livestock, and even though the vast majority of livestock is lost to weather, birthing problems and disease, any loss can be significant when profit margins are slim.
Traditionally, the livestock industry has relied on USDA Wildlife Services to kill predators on their behalf through the use of traps, poisons, and guns. Traps and poisons are completely indiscriminate. They often kill non-target animals including pets. Shooting is labor intensive and animals can be wounded and left to face an agonizing death. Even worse, once the predators are killed, it creates a vacancy for more predators to move in, and thus begins an endless cycle of killing.
Luckily, many forward thinking ranchers are finding more sustainable solutions to ranching with predators. Non-lethal livestock protection methods like guardian animals, electric fencing, and night corrals are proving to be valuable tools that help to ensure that both predators and livestock can peacefully share the land.
Marin County is leading the way in this effort. In 2000, the county ended its contract with USDA Wildlife Services and took the money they formerly spent killing native predators and put it toward a cost-share program which helps ranchers purchase livestock guardian dogs, upgrade their fencing, and make other improvements that help keep livestock safe. Stacy Carlsen, the Marin County Agricultural Commissioner has called the Marin Livestock and Wildlife Protection Program, “An innovative model that sets a precedent for meeting community values where both agriculture and protection of wildlife are deemed important. The success of our county model has set the trend for the rest of the nation.”
Guard dogs are one of the most effective ways to protect livestock. There are certain breeds, (Great Pyrenees, Maremma, and Anatolian Shepherds, among others) that are specifically bred to guard livestock. A Great Pyrenees can weigh 80 to 115 pounds; coyotes in this area average 25 to 30 pounds. So, you can see that coyotes are not going to want to risk going near a pasture of sheep that has a good guardian dog watching over them. Interestingly enough, llamas are very effective at guarding livestock. You’ll have to ask them why, but they hate coyotes. They will go after coyotes and attack them, given the chance.
The world of livestock protection is evolving. In addition to the above, now there are solar power LED lights that flash at random times and in random fashions to mimic the appearance of humans patrolling pastures with a flashlight, and collars for sheep that monitor their heart rates and emit a high frequency alarm when sheep are chased. It should no longer be considered OK to leave unprotected livestock on the land and then exterminate native predators in order to keep livestock safe.
Let’s not forget that predators have a valuable role in the ecosystem and provide important services to ranchers by helping control populations of ground squirrels, rabbits and rodents. They don’t have to eat livestock to survive, and, in fact, most don’t, and will rarely attack anything outside of their natural prey.
All of these predators predate man and our livestock. We are finally discovering that it is much better to learn to share the land with the animals that were here first, rather than engage in an endless war on wildlife. And while there may be rare occasions when lethal controls are necessary, these new techniques should diminish that.
For anyone interested in learning more about these and other non-lethal solutions to wildlife conflicts, Project Coyote, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping people and carnivores coexist, is co-sponsoring (along with the Marin Department of Agriculture and Fibershed) a non-lethal livestock protection workshop called, Ranching with Wildlife: Building Sustainable Communities, Preserving our Heritage. It will be held on March 26, 2 to 5 p.m., at the Rockin’ H Ranch and Vineyards, 6614 Lakeville Hwy. in Petaluma. The workshop is free to the public; they just ask that attendees RSVP to Keli Hendricks at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sharon Ponsford is a a longtime volunteer with Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and a former board member of the California Council of Wildlife Rehabilitators. She lives in Glen Ellen. If you have questions or would like to ask her about our local wildlife, please email her at email@example.com.