Lesson in wildlife management at Commission
Jaynell Graham, Editor
Angelo Jiordano, Staff Writer
Commissioner Martin Saffer invited DNR officer Howard Shinaberry and USDA wildlife biologist John Houben to Tuesday evening’s Pocahontas County Commission meeting to talk about implementing a coyote management program for the county.
“Ever since I got sheep, the talk has been ‘oh, you’ve gotta worry about coyotes,’” said Saffer. “I know there are several local farmers over in Mill Point where they run across [route] 219 and the sheep have to be penned up at night. I myself thought I’d lost some pets to coyotes last week — fortunately that wasn’t the case — but I started to inquire about the issue of coyotes and how serious they are and what is being done about it. What is the extent of the problem?”
Houben said the coyote program in West Virginia dates back to the mid 90s.
“Coyotes were recognized as causing a problem with livestock,” explained Huben. “As they moved into the state, the population started building and of course they turned to sheep very quickly as an alternative prey source. In 1996 the problem was so bad that the state of West Virginia asked the USDA to help. Our expertise is in the area of wildlife damage management so it was kind of natural they turned to us.”
“We did a pilot-program in ‘96, which involved three counties. At that point in time, WVU had documented losses on an average — I think it was 27.9% of the lambs were being killed on a number of farms that were surveyed. To leap forward about fourteen or fifteen years, our program has dropped that loss-rate down to the neighborhood of just one or two percent per year on the farms we protect.”
Houben said the coyote management program has been funded by various agencies in years past. Originally funded with federal dollars, the program lost its budget two years ago in what he called “the big budget crunch that we’re all familiar with.” Houben said the program was so well-received that the state Department of Agriculture, which partially funded the program, stepped up to replace the federal funding that was lost.
Saffer asked Houben how the program actually works.
“What do you do? Set traps? Go out in the middle of the night with flashlights and shoot these predators? What is it that you do to bring these animals under control?” Saffer asked.
“We have a specific objective in what we do,” Houben said. “The service we provide — that is to stop damage. Not necessarily kill coyotes. Coyote removal is a very important part of it, but the goal is to protect livestock. The idea is to support the livestock industry, to get additional lambs and calves to market.”
Houben said there are two general categories to protect livestock — lethal and non-lethal.
“Most of the non-lethal techniques you’ve probably heard of. Things like guard dogs and improved fencing and husbandry. The onus to do that usually falls on the producer — though I’m sure you’d love for me to come out to your place and build you a fence,” joked Houben. “The non-lethal stuff we’re generally providing technical assistance.”
“The lethal removal, that’s where producers are looking for assistance,” Houben went on to say. “It’s pretty labor intensive. What we do is absolutely nothing like hunting and trapping coyotes for sport or fur. The tools we use, the way we use them is entirely different. We still take a lot of coyotes. In fact, we probably harvest, I would hazard to guess, a fourth or even a third of the coyotes that are harvested in the state.”
Houben said if you look at all the coyotes in the county, most of them are not attacking livestock.
“The ones that kill livestock are, generally speaking, the adult pair in the spring and summer — when they’re trying to provide food for their young,” Houben said.
Saffer inquired whether coyotes posed a danger to county residents.
“You don’t want to go out on a limb and say that coyotes pose no threat to humans,” explained Houben. “We know enough about the interaction between coyotes and humans that it’ s a pretty predictable scenario when someone gets bit. It’s a result of humans feeding coyotes and habituating the coyotes to the point that instead of being afraid of humans, they associate humans with food. They get used to humans and then somebody does something foolish like try to feed ‘em a hotdog or something and they end up getting bit. That typically does not happen in a rural setting. The interaction between humans and coyotes is not something to be overly concerned about.”
Saffer expressed concerns about rabies.
“Basically any warm-blooded mammal can get rabies,” Hubin told commissioners. “In eastern West Virginia here, rabies are basically being passed from raccoon to raccoon. Occasionally you get what’s called spill-over into other species. Skunks would be the next most common. As far as a concern with coyotes, it’s not really a primary or serious concern.”
DNR officer Howard Shinaberry said it’s an open season when it comes to hunting coyotes. There are some restrictions on when lights can be used at night, and he said hunters either have to use a .22 caliber rifle or #2 shot in a shotgun. Shinaberry told commissioners he remembered years ago, Pocahontas County had a $50 bounty on coyotes, and he’d like to see the program revived.
Houben questioned whether a bounty would be effective enough to control the coyote population.
“You’re dealing with animals that are very, very mobile,” Houben said. “Our research biologist had a coyote up in Nicholas County that we had a collar on. That coyote decided to take a walkabout and left his home range. He went all the way to Monroe County — 70 some miles — turned around, and walked straight back to his home range.”
“We’re probably talking a coyote per every two square miles,” he said. “To affect that population whatsoever, you’d have to remove 70% of those coyotes every year for 40 years running. Any year that you drop below 70% removal, the population will rebuild. Coyotes from surrounding counties would move right in. When you really think it through from a biological and economical stand point, it really doesn’t make sense.”
Shinaberry admitted it would be hard to regulate. Not much could be done to prevent residents from neighboring counties from bringing their kills to Pocahontas County and collecting the bounty.
Using Houben’s estimate, commission president David Fleming tried to determine roughly how much a bounty program would cost the county.
“941 square miles, a coyote at every two — 470 coyotes,” calculated Fleming. “70% of that would be 330 coyotes. If that were $50 apiece, that’d be $16,500 annually.”
Houben said it depends on who you’re asking when it comes to whether coyotes have a place in the local ecology.
“If you look at our ecosystem, the east, at one point in time a couple hundred years ago, had wolves,” Houben said. “Wolves were removed — I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but what that did was open up a spot in the ecosystem for a canine predator that’s larger than a fox. Coyotes basically have filled that niche. They are capable of killing deer, killing larger prey than foxes can. Is that beneficial? That comes down to one’s personal viewpoint. If you’re a deer hunter or someone who makes an income off tourist dollars coming in from hunters, you might consider that an impact. If you’re a farmer with an alfalfa field, you might consider those coyotes doing you a favor.”
Shinaberry said there is no reporting requirement to remove a coyote on your property.
“If you need to kill ‘em to protect your pets or livestock, you don’t have to call to report them. Do what you have to do to protect your property and yourself,” advised Shinaberry.
“Shoot first, ask questions later,” quipped Fleming.
Houben said pet owners should keep an eye out for coyote activity because the dens may be closer than you think.
“As a pet owner, if you know there’s areas that coyotes are frequenting, if you’re seeing coyotes crossing a field all the time in May, they’ve probably got a den somewhere back in that direction. That’s not where you want to take Pooch for a walk the next couple of months. Pick some other route,” he said.
Update on Ethics Complaint
County commission clerk Sue Helton said she received a letter from the West Virginia Ethics Commission regarding the recent ethics complaint filed by commissioners against Sheriff David Jonese.
“It’s merely a request to not discuss the complaint that we filed,” explained Helton.
“The complaint is identified as VCRB-2012-112. The complaint will now be considered by the Probable Cause Review Board of the West Virginia Ethics Commission. We ask that you refrain from public disclosure or discussion of the fact that you have filed a complaint,” read Fleming.
Prosecutor’s legal fees still unpaid
Commissioners debated whether to pay for legal services from Ranson Law Offices, incurred by prosecuting attorney Donna Meadows-Price.
“The last county commission meeting, I was asked to contact them by e-mail and update them. I did receive a response which I provided to all three commissioners,” said Helton.
The letter from Ranson Law Offices states, “I understand from your e-mail that the payment on behalf of Ms. Price has been placed on the agenda for the next county commission meeting. Please advise Ranson Law Offices of the outcome of the meeting regarding the county commission’s payment of the $19,452.51 for legal services rendered to Ms. Price while she was serving as the Pocahontas County prosecutor. I trust payment of the past due invoices will be made immediately following the county commission meeting. Thank you in advance for the county commission’s anticipated cooperation and assistance.”
Fleming questioned whether the commission was obligated to pay the invoice.
“It was my understanding that we never agreed to pay them, that it’s not our responsibility to pay these invoices on behalf of our prosecuting attorney. I’m not sure the county commission is obliged to pay these, by law,” Fleming said.
Saffer agreed with Fleming.
“I would be tempted to ask Ms. Ranson to go ahead and sue us,” Saffer said. “That way we can get some guidance going forward in the future. ‘Sue me’, that’s what I say. Go ahead and sue us and let the judge tell us what to do.”
“I feel if she did do her duty and the charges are dropped, it would be our responsibility to pay it,” said commissioner Jamie Walker. “If she deliberately [did] something wrong and she’s found guilty for that, I feel like that’s her problem.”
“I would like permission to write a letter to Ms. Ranson explaining our position on that,” said Fleming. “Basically explain our whole rationale, we’re going to wait until a decision is made and if you need to proceed with litigation against us then proceed.”
Commission moves to move Community Corrections
The county’s lease with Chittum Land Development expires January 1, 2013. Community Corrections is located in Chittum’s building, formerly known as the Old Bank of Marlinton Building.
In addition to paying $550 per month rent, plus utilities, Helton reported to the commission that a trash assessment fee had been added beginning in July 2012 even though it was not a part of the lease agreement. Chittum Land Development is also asking the county to enter into an agreement for a set amount of insurance, over and above the county’s coverage provided by the West Virginia Risk Pool.
Saffer recommended moving Community Corrections to the ARC building on Third Avenue.
Community Corrections director Robert Tooze agreed with Saffer’s recommendation, saying it would not take long to move the contents from the the office to the ARC building. But offered the possibility of a time delay due to coordinating the installation of necessary technology.
The county’s lease of the ARC building to John Duncan and Johnny Fitzgerald does not expire until August 31, 2013, but the commission hopes to negotiate to use part of the building in the meantime.
“It’s our building,” he said. “There would be no charge. We need to use county property rather than continuing to pay rent.”
Art is expanding
Arthur Kreft and Eric Werner, representing the Pocahontas County Arts Council, presented that organization’s annual update and a recap as to how far the arts have come in Pocahontas County since the inception of this group.
Kreft, a talented painter, told them that, early on, it had taken three years for him to find out how to get a painting in an art show. At that time there were no opportunities for workshops, but through the years that has changed.
With financial support from the Hotel-Motel tax, income from grants and the sale of prints, art is now accessible to most everyone through different venues, and the council works to enhance and expand art in the schools, as well.
A six minute video shot at the council’s Green Bank location showed the teaching talent of Arts Council member Kay Gillispie as she offered instruction to students working to improve their style.
“We are moving hobbyists to professionals,” Kreft said.
The group now needs money for personnel, he said, not just supplies.
In another professional bid:
Commissioners agreed to approach Pocahontas Woods to build eight sets of window shutters, from local red oak, for the courtroom and judge’s chamber. The cost per window will be $510 for a total project cost of $4,080.
County clerk Missy Bennett told commissioners she had obtained legal counsel from Joanna Tabit from the law offices of Steptoe and Johnson to respond to a recent petition filed by Arbovale resident Cheryl McCullogh.
McCullough said Bennett’s name was only mentioned because of the office she holds.
“She’s only named because of the chain-of-command so-to-speak. I don’t have a problem with Missy. She is merely mentioned because she had to be mentioned,” said McCullough.
Tuesday night’s commission meeting was the last meeting for outgoing commissioner Martin Saffer. Fleming took a moment to thank Saffer for his devotion and dedication.
“He’s been with us for six years now and he’ll be moving on to other things,” Fleming said. “It’s been a real honor to work with you. I think Martin is a wonderful champion of environmental and community concerns, and we’re going to miss him here.”
“I’ll just briefly say, it’s been a tremendous honor and privilege to serve as a county commissioner — thank you,” Saffer responded.