Wiley and wonderful
According to a survey conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, coyotes in the United States killed an estimated 135,600 sheep and lambs in 2004, worth a total of $10.7 million.
Randolph, Pendleton, and Pocahontas were the original counties in West Virginia to participate in a pilot-program in 1996 to address coyote predation on sheep. John Houben, district supervisor for the USDA's Wildlife Services Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, and his staff, help manage the program.
“USDA Wildlife Services is part of a federal wildlife management program that specializes in resolving wildlife damage issues,” explained Houben. “Those issues take on a wide gamut of things. Anything from aircraft-wildlife-incident-safety, to protection for endangered species from other wildlife preying on them, to urban and suburban wildlife nuisance issues — like wildlife damage from Canada geese in parks. Any place you can think of where wildlife interests might come in conflict with human interests — those are the sort of projects that we address.”
Houben said the coyote predation program started on a limited scale, concentrating mostly on lambs.
“We focused on sheep because that was the big complaint,” Houben said. “WVU did a survey in that same area [Pocahontas County] the year before this pilot-program began. They were finding that sheep producers were typically losing 22-to-24 percent of their lamb crop. It literally took sheep production from profitable, to break even at best. For many producers, it took them into the red to the point that they went out of business.”
Houben said the program is a cooperative program with two other partnering agencies — the state Department of Agriculture and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. He said the program is fairly well known among extension agents and livestock producers.
“Most of the county agents who live in livestock-producing counties are well aware of it,” he said. “If they get a call, they'll refer the producer to us. And we work closely with the DNR — they're well aware of the program. So if they receive a call, they put the producer in touch with us also.”
Houben said the program provides a wide variety of services to farmers.
“In cases where livestock producers need assistance, we can provide what we call direct-services,” said Houben. “Those are situations where we go in and resolve the damage. Generally that means we remove the two or three or four coyotes there that might be involved with killing livestock.”
Houben said they also work to educate the public. He said not all coyotes are livestock killers.
“I think that's important,” he said. “They aren't 'bad guys.' They're just coyotes doing coyote stuff. They have fangs. They are predators. They kill other animals and eat them for a living — that's just the way they were created.”
According to Houben, the loss of livestock is generally related to coyotes raising pups.
“If you've ever been around teenagers — particularly teenage boys — they eat a lot,” joked Houben. “So when the adult coyotes are raising pups, there's a tremendous demand for them to provide for those pups. As a result, they turn to whatever is quickest, and easiest and close by. So it's particularly in the months of April, May and June when we see these adult coyotes turning to livestock to provide for those pups. If you think about it, not all members of the coyote population are an adult pair raising pups. So the vast majority of these coyotes really aren't causing any problems.”
Houben said for the most part, the coyote population has stabilized in Pocahontas County. He said no wildlife population continuously increases every year.
“We have a coyote population that is robust,” said Houben. “It might go up a little bit, it might go down a little bit, but there's plenty of them out there. Over the last twenty years, the population has grown nearly continuously, but it's probably right around the level of topping out. There's a term we use in wildlife management called 'carrying capacity.' Generally speaking, you could have a few more of anything out there, but it gets to a point where lack of food, disease, environmental degradation, any number of things, limit that carrying capacity.”
Greg Hamons, WVU extension agent for Pocahontas County, said a lot of folks wouldn't even know coyotes are in the area.
“Coyotes are pretty reclusive,” Hamons said. “As far as somebody driving down the road — you're probably not going to see a whole lot of them. They don't expose themselves a lot. The casual person just driving through — someone who isn't involved in agriculture — probably wouldn't even know they exist.”
Hamons has been in his position since May of 2009, and he said he gets calls all the time about coyote predation.
“Sheep suffer the most for sure,” he said. “A lot of lamb predation. Especially folks that are lambing outside and don't have a facility to get their sheep in every night, and especially this time of year on through the spring.”
According to Hamons, there's a reason lamb producers suffer more than a farmer raising beef — he said once a healthy calf gets up and going, it's harder for a coyote to take it down.
Hamons said he agrees that the program is helping livestock producers.
“I think it's probably improved as far as percentages,” he said. “And now producers have learned some management techniques — getting their sheep in at night, not leaving them exposed so that they're easy prey for the coyotes. A lot of people will use a protection animal. Some folks use guard dogs, some folks have used llamas or donkeys. That's a popular technique now, especially guard dogs.”
Hamons said adequate facilities are key in limiting livestock loss.
“If you have a place you can keep your sheep close to home and watch over them at night. Or if you can get them inside a barn or something, that eliminates a lot of loss, as well.”
Joe Riley has been a farmer pretty much his whole life. He said he grew up raising livestock, and nowadays he raises sheep, cattle and hogs at Stompin' Crick Farm. Riley said he can remember when coyotes first started appearing in Pocahontas County.
“Back whenever I was in college, about the late 80s, is when the coyotes first moved in,” Riley recalled. “I remember we were losing lambs — something was killing them. Someone trapped a coyote and I think that was close to being the first one in our area. Now, there's just more and more around.”
According to Riley — at the time — lamb prices were really low. Between the coyote predation and the ailing market, a lot of people were driven away from the sheep industry.
Riley said up until last spring, he had problems with coyotes. His solution was a guard dog — Atlas. He's a three-way cross — a third Great Pyrenees, a third Anatolian shepherd, and a third Maremma sheepdog. Riley said ever since he got Atlas, he hasn't had any problems. Unfortunately, Atlas went missing two weeks ago and Riley said he hasn't seen him since.
Riley said he's had the USDA folks out to his farm before, and their techniques were effective.
“I've had them put out the snares before, and they've used the cyanide bombs — the M-44s,” Riley said. “They've killed as many as nine in one spring.”
According to the USDA website, “the M-44 ejector device is an effective and environmentally sound wildlife management tool.”
Riley and his family sell beef, pork, lamb, eggs, fruit, berries, and vegetables at their farm. Visit them at www.stompincrickfarm.com
Houben said he encourages livestock producers who are having trouble with coyotes to contact him. He said Pocahontas County is the dividing line between the northern and southern district for the region, so if you live in the northern end of the county, call 304-636-1785. If you live in the southern end of the county, call 304-372-2578.