Awakening to the spirit and beauty of the northern Great Plains
Friday, February 19, 2010
How to justify a coyote bounty
The coyote bounty is back in the news this week, first with an article in the Regina Leader-Post, where the Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Bob Bjornerud says he can't be sure whether the bounty is working. Last year, before the bounty, 16,000 coyotes were killed by hunters and trappers, and with the bounty this winter there have been 15,000 taken so far. He hopes that the number will increase and according to a government news release that came out today, February 19, stimulating more stories in the media, the latest numbers are 18,000 coyotes killed under the bounty.
Later in the newspaper article and then in the news release, Bjonerud applies the argument that rears its head whenever policy-makers are criticized for using predator-control methods that are ineffective or ecologically irresponsible: i.e. "we have to do something because sooner or later a (insert predator here) is going to attack a human being." Here is what the minister actually said: "I guess my counter to (the criticism) is 'So what should we do?' We should sit back until some little kid out of some family in rural Saskatchewan gets attacked by six or seven coyotes, and the first thing everybody would say is why didn't you do something."
Ok, it is interesting that this started as a way to keep a handful of sheep farmers happy, but now it is to save our children. Do we kill 30,000 or 50,000 coyotes in this province just so the provincial government can cover its ass and say "we tried" if and when a coyote attack comes?
Let's look at the minister's argument. A bounty could theoretically discourage or eliminate some aggressive coyotes if more people shoot at them when a bounty is available. Undoubtedly some aggressive coyotes will be shot, perhaps even disproportionate numbers, since aggressive ones may be less inclined to run away. But will a bounty prevent or significantly reduce the chances of the kind of attack that killed the girl in Nova Scotia last year?
To address this question we have to consider why it is that people, as the minister suggests, are reporting that coyotes are more "brazen" or aggressive than they used to be.
If coyotes seem more aggressive and apt to come into zones of human habitation today, it is partly because rural people are not as inclined as our grandparents once were to discourage (by shooting at) coyotes who come too close to living areas; but it is also because coyotes are losing their natural habitat all over North America's populated areas.
Today, farming practices are removing bush, wetlands, and uncultivated margins from their land at a fierce rate. Also, with urban sprawl we have many more acreage dwellers than we have ever had, many of them moving into the last remnants of uncultivated habitat (valleys and wooded areas). Why does this matter? Not only do these newcomers to the country come into proximity with wild animals by moving into and degrading their habitat; they also roll out the red carpet for any animals that might be a little more hungry or aggressive than usual. Naive about wild animals, and just plain ignorant, acreage-dwellers tend to do things that encourage coyotes: they keep the kind of dogs that cannot defend themselves and some of them feed their pets outdoors, which is a siren song to a hungry coyote. Perhaps worst of all, they do not shoot at or otherwise chase aggressive coyotes away.
These causes of the "brazen coyote" phenomena we are seeing now all over North America are not going to go away merely because a bounty gets a few more varmint hunters off their couches and out plinking at coyotes. And as long as the causes remain, we will continue to hear more people frightened by what they see predators doing. If we don't address causes, governments are going to continue to reach for these ill-formed non-solutions. The result will be more damage to the ecosystem by temporarily giving an advantage to introduced predators such as the red fox, a species that is hard on ground-nesting birds. It will also give ground squirrels some local relief from predation, increasing their numbers until farmers complain and the Agriculture ministry starts a strychnine campaign against them.
After the dust of a bounty settles, the real losers are birds and mammals lower down the food chain and not the coyotes themselves. Any temporary decline in coyote numbers will eventually be filled by survivors who increase reproduction accordingly. Some species decline under hunting pressure, but ecologists will tell you that the coyote simply increases the size and frequency of litters when adults are removed from the ecosystem.
Still, the problem of predator/human and predator/livestock encounters involving coyotes, wolves, and cougars is only going to increase here as it is elsewhere. What do we do?
We need to put our best ecologists on the matter of how do we deal with incidents where aggressive animals are reported as attacking either people or their livestock. Killing as many predators as possible with bounties is not a good answer, but there is much we can do to shape human environments and educate people so that the chances of such incidents are reduced.
Then we need a way to help livestock producers whose animals are being killed--whether it is subsidized insurance or a targeted local predator control programme of some kind. But first we need an independant, non-governmental panel of scientists to look into the matter and then recommend ecologically responsible solutions to the government.
Unfortunately, I don't think we can trust the government to deal honestly with the recommendations they receive from their own biologists. Between the muzzling of government scientists and the despairing self-censorship that science bureaucrats lapse toward after a few years of watching their recommendations either ignored or twisted to fit the economic-growth policy that runs roughshod over any other value, there is little hope of actually hearing what our government scientists think we should do about such an issue.