Awakening to the spirit and beauty of the northern Great Plains
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Coyote—predator as scapegoat
The Saskatchewan government has placed a bounty on coyotes. It came from the Agriculture minister because sheep and cattle ranchers have been demanding something be done to control coyotes. The provincial Environment department has ecologists who know that this kind of measure does not stop coyotes from eating livestock. Our universities have biologists and ecologists who could explain what happens when bounty hunters start killing a predator like the coyote. As a “k-selected” species, the coyote regulates its population according to food supply and mortality rates. If there is abundant food but adults are being killed, the survivors, who are also the more successful and wise, immediately increase the brood size and numbers of pregnant females within the pack. Trying to control coyote populations by killing them has been compared to bailing a boat with a sieve.
Food is the main limiting factor for our coyote populations. One way to control their numbers would be to limit some of their food sources, but instead we have spread a banquet for them: road-killed deer are always left to be scavenged, dead farm livestock are dumped into the bush or ravine, pet food is left outside, cats run wild and feral over the countryside, gophers and mice multiply in the absence of the raptors that hunt them.
If there is a lot of food, there will be a lot of coyotes—no matter how many the bounty hunters kill. On the other hand, if people do not take measures to minimize food sources and scare away coyotes from their livestock and yard sites, they will continue to have encounters with “brazen coyotes.” This phenomena of the “brazen coyote” is new, not simply because there are more coyotes, but more importantly because there are more rural people today who inadvertently spread the banquet with their pets and garbage, but do not do anything to discourage the coyotes. Acreage people and often farmers themselves do not have the rifles at the ready and the inclination to use them to scare off or kill problem coyotes. When farmers do their own coyote control, any coyote who doesn’t have the sense to run from a human being or stay away from a yard site is not going to have the chance to pass on its genes. A random bounty program to kill coyotes may eliminate some of the problem coyotes, but many more will be born to survivors as long as the food supply remains high and rural people encourage coyotes to associate farms and human habitation with food.
An interesting sidelight on the coyote bounty: I have heard via the grapevine that some of the loudest complaints have come from sheep farmers north of the Qu’Appelle in the Cupar/Lipton area, where British farmers have moved in recent decades to set up farming (here is a story of a sheep farmer who came from Scotland and who is now on the Saskatchewan Sheep Breeders Association Board.) They are undoubtedly a welcome addition to the local farm community, but if they come from Scotland or England they arrive with a certain set of expectations and experiences—about wildlife and about the government’s role in making the land safe for farming. Livestock farmers in the Old World got rid of all wild predators centuries ago, in an era when wild canids were thought to be evil and destructive vermin who have no value and should be eliminated.
We are supposed to be past that kind of superstitious scapegoating of predators, but this new coyote bounty seems like a lapse back toward that same old approach to our problems. Livestock producers have their share of real problems these days. With livestock prices low and feed grain prices high, it is a rough time for anyone trying to make a living by grazing animals. The long term solutions—disengaging from the unsustainable grain industry and getting prices for meat that would help producers balance the books while applying more ecologically sound practices—are not easily achieved or even accepted by our policy-makers right now. They hear all kinds of complaints from producers and want to respond but feel powerless in the face of systems controlled by multi-national corporations and global trade realities. The producers feel the same way and look around for something they think they can act upon—and all too often it is nature. When it doesn’t rain, grasshoppers give people something to focus on; when it rains too much, water is the enemy and must be controlled. In between, there are always unwanted grazers (gophers, and, formerly, bison), and if nothing else, unwanted predators.
I buy my chickens and some grass-fed beef from Leonard and Janet Piggot who ranch in that same Cupar/Lipton/Dysart area (here is their website). Last year, Leonard was noticing that some of the chickens were vanishing from his chicken pens. He keeps his chickens in large enclosures that he can wheel over the pasture day by day, spreading their manure and giving the birds fresh grass and bugs to eat. When I was visiting this spring I helped him build one of these enclosures and he told me the story of how he figured out the cause of his disappearing chickens. One night, he sat in his truck with his rifle at the ready and watched his chicken pens. Darkness fell and in the low light he saw a coyote sneak up to one of the enclosures and along one side to a spot where the bottom bar crossed over a small dip in the ground. As Leonard watched the coyote over the bead at the end of his rifle, he saw that the dip allowed enough space for the coyote to reach under the bar and grab a chicken. That’s when most of us would have shot the coyote, but Leonard didn’t. He told me it suddenly occurred to him that the coyote was just being a coyote. “I should’ve made the enclosure better” he said, “The coyote was just doing his job but it’s my job to make sure he doesn’t get a free meal off me.” This year his enclosures had flaps along the bottom bar keeping the chickens alive and the coyotes wild. Wildness is part of the reason Leonard ranches—it’s in his holistic plan for the land and his family and it was on his mind when he decided not to pull the trigger.
Leonard Piggot is an uncommon livestock producer, more focussed on the grass and the health of his land than on the bottom line, but I truly believe his way of being on the prairie is beginning to catch on—coyote bounties notwithstanding.