Big Otis, a great Pyrenees dog

Big Otis, a Great Pyrenees, is a livestock guardian dog in Marin County. (Photo: Keli Hendricks/Project Coyote)

Big Otis never stopped barking. The entire time I stood with Marcia Barinaga in the sheep pasture on her ranch, he stayed a good distance away, but between us and the sheep. "He won't stop barking. We're the biggest deal here right now," Barinaga says.

And that's exactly what is supposed to happen. Big Otis is a Great Pyrenees and a livestock guardian dog whose single role in life is to protect his sheep. He is one of many livestock guardian animals that call Marin County, Calif., home. These animals — including several breeds of dogs such as Maremma and Anatolian shepherds, and even llamas — are part of the area's novel yet intuitive program to protect not only livestock, but also the lives of the native predators that might make a meal of lambs and ewes, primarily coyotes.

Hatred for coyotes runs deep

Coyotes have the honor of being one of the most hated species among ranchers, and for good reason. "I could tell you some stories that would curl your hair," said Barinaga, and she rattled off stories about the havoc coyotes have wreaked on livestock that indeed gave me a chill.

While most coyotes are content with eating rodents and other smaller prey, there are plenty who are willing to try for a farmer's sheep, calves, chickens and other livestock — what is called “novel prey.” Once a taste for such relatively big and certainly easy meals is developed, it is difficult if not impossible to change the coyote's mind. It is these coyotes that ranchers hate, but unfortunately every member of the species becomes a despised target. For centuries, coyotes (along with other apex predators including wolves, bears and mountain lions) have been killed with impunity.

A coyote in Marin County

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

Coyotes have been, and are, killed by the millions. They are the victims of horrific traps and snares, have been subjected to cruel poisonings, chased down and shot by sharpshooters in planes, their dens have been blown up or set fire to with the pups inside. Most ranchers view the killing as a necessity, but conservationists point out that this widespread killing does more damage than good for coyotes — as it does for non-target species that are killed by the traps and poisons meant for coyotes, and even for the ranchers themselves. And indeed, there are more coyotes spread over more of North America than ever.

The broad-stroke killing does nothing but repeat cruelty. It does not solve any problems.

There is a better way for ranchers to keep coyotes away, and Marin County has proved it. For the last 13 years, Marin County ranchers and conservationists have been successfully following a program that finds a middle ground, a way to coexist with coyotes for the benefit of all.

Understanding coyote biology

The Marin County Livestock and Wildlife Protection Program started with Camilla Fox, the executive director of Project Coyote. Fox is a lifelong advocate for animals; she cofounded Boston University Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals while a student at the university, and went on to earn a master's degree in environmental studies from Prescott College. Recognizing that non-lethal ways of dealing with coyotes are also more effective solutions in the long run, she began the long process of changing people's minds — not an easy task when the hatred for coyotes runs so deep.

As widespread as coyotes are, it is only in the last several decades that biologists have studied the coyote to better understand this unique, highly intelligent and highly adaptable species. What they have found is that coyotes self-regulate their populations. When an area is occupied by coyotes, only mature adults, or alphas, will mate and litter sizes are usually smaller. Conversely, when there are fewer coyotes in an area, and thus more prey to go around, coyotes will breed earlier in life and have larger litters. Dr. Jonathan Way, a researcher specializing in Eastern coyotes, writes in his book "Suburban Howls" that "a heavily harvested coyote population can actually rebound to saturation level within a year or two due to normal reproduction and dispersal."

So killing coyotes in an area is like putting up a big For Rent sign, and there are plenty in surrounding areas willing to fill that now-available territory.

A coyote in Marin County

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

Way calls an area where coyotes are killed at random and in large numbers a “sink habitat” — new coyotes keep coming in only to be killed, providing room for yet more coyotes to come in and disappear into the sinkhole. Those that aren’t killed are busy having sizeable litters of pups. Ranches and farms where any and all coyotes are killed, rather than just specific problem-causing coyotes, are like these sink habitats — new coyotes will just keep coming in, including more that are willing to try taking out a lamb for dinner.

Marin's program is geared instead to creating stable populations of “trained” coyotes. It instead teaches resident coyotes that livestock animals are not on the menu through various deterrents, and also allows these resident coyotes to stay and defend their territory against newcomers so there is a reduced chance of new coyotes coming in, including those that may be willing to try novel prey such as lambs and calves.

Barinaga, a biologist before becoming a rancher, concurs. "You go and shoot the keystone coyote and you're going to have more coyotes move in, and that's going to be a less stable situation," she tells me. "I think the ranchers do understand it's only certain coyotes that will have a taste for lambs. Most of them are going to be happy eating your gophers and groundhogs out there, and if you just wantonly shoot any coyotes you see, you could be bringing in more trouble."

It is not just an ethical issue to end the mass killing of coyotes, but also one of economics.

Marin's novel and successful program

The question of cost and efficacy was raised in 1996 when Marin County still had federal trappers dealing with coyotes. This is when a controversial proposal was made for using livestock protection collars — collars worn by sheep that blast lethal Compound 1080 poison into the mouths of coyotes when they attack.

According to the Lassen Times, the "USDA will match 40 percent of the funds available for a specific counties’ predatory animal control program, giving counties incentive to use a federal trapper. The program kills more than 2.4 million animals each year, including more than 120,000 native carnivores. The annual cost to taxpayers is $115 million, to fund a program using methods that have come under increasing public scrutiny as questions of ethics and effectiveness have been raised."

With the USDA matching county funding for predator removal, there was a certain appeal for Marin County to continue working with wildlife services. But when public controversy arose over the means by which the service kills coyotes, and then when California banned steel-jawed traps and the controversial livestock protection collars in 1998, there was a need for a new solution to the problem.

In 2000, the Marin County Livestock and Wildlife Protection Program was launched as a five-year pilot program. The money that would have gone to federal trappers now went to helping ranchers with the purchase of livestock guardian animals, improving or building new fences, and constructing night corrals.

Big Otis protects his flock

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

Livestock guardian animals

One of the most important tools ranchers have is the help of other animals that act as livestock guardian animals.

A variety of dog breeds are ideal for protecting livestock, including Maremas, Great Pyrenees, Anatolian shepherds and Akbash. But there are a few traits they all have in common. The breeds that work as livestock protection dogs all have a low prey drive, which keeps them from going after the livestock themselves, and they all bond with the animals they are protecting, starting at just a few weeks of age.

Just as there are different breeds, there are also different philosophies about guardian dogs, including whether or not to socialize them with people. The pro of socializing is that if the dog develops a bad behavior, the owner can work with it to fix the behavior. The con is that sometimes socialized dogs would rather be with people than with their herd or flock. What works best depends on the rancher's needs.

Barinaga, who follows the philosophy of not socializing her dogs, stresses that she has not needed to put one minute of training into them. "[My dogs] are not socialized at all. They are completely working dogs,” she says. “It's also completely genetics of behavior. If you have a herding dog, there is a lot of training you do with that dog; that dog is very bonded to you, and you're working together. These dogs, it's just innate behavior. Just put them out with the sheep and they do their job."

Livestock protection dogs are not always perfect. They are individuals and some are more suited to the task than others, as Barinaga has found out through experience. One of her dogs was discovered chasing the sheep and harming them, another was more interested in being with people than with his flock, and yet another was an escape artist — and not completely content staying with the sheep. The job requires an animal that is entirely loyal to the livestock it is tasked with protecting, and also entirely content staying with its herd or flock to really succeed as a guardian animal. When you find the right dogs, as Barinaga currently has, the situation works beautifully.

Barinaga says, "I think that they're just completely happy, contented dogs. I love my dogs because they protect my sheep. I'm not a dog person; I'm a sheep person, but I just really admire them. These dogs know us, they know what we want from them."

A guard llama in Marin County

Photo: Camilla Fox/Project Coyote

Of course, dogs are not the only option. Camilla Fox and Christopher Papouchis recommend several more techniques in their book "Coyotes In Our Midst," point out that llamas and donkeys are also options. "Llamas are naturally aggressive toward canids, responding to their presence with alarm calls, approaching, chasing, pawing and kicking, herding sheep or by positioning themselves between sheep and canids."

One Marin rancher, Mimi Lubberman, uses llamas and found this option particularly enticing because of the low cost of caring for the animal. Her llamas have been highly effective protectors of her sheep. A 2003 article in National Geographic looks at a study done by William Franklin, professor emeritus at Iowa State University, and notes, "More than half of the llama owners he contacted reported 100 percent reduction in their predator losses after employing the animal as a guard. The majority of guard llamas in the U.S. are patrolling Western ranches. But with larger predators like coyotes moving eastward, more flock owners might be interested in llamas as guardians."

Guardian animals can't do it alone

Good fencing and other strategies must be in place along with guardian animals. "You have to help the dogs. I've never lost an animal to a predator — other people with livestock protection animals don't have a zero percent loss, they have some loss. But our pastures are relatively small and our fences are good," says Barinaga.

To receive reimbursement from the county for an animal lost to predators, ranchers have to have several of the recommended practices in place, which include livestock guardian animals, impermeable fencing, and night pastures — smaller corrals where animals are kept at night when they are more vulnerable. Fox and Papouchis point out other helpful practices in their book, including lambing sheds (small, safe areas where ewes and their newborn lambs are kept while the youngsters gain strength); disposing of livestock carcasses so as not to lure in scavengers; raising sheep and cattle together in "flerds"; electric fencing; and frightening devices, which emit sound and light to scare off predators.

Every ranch has unique needs and requires a customized combination of strategies. "It's important you never second guess a rancher," says Barinaga. "They know their situation better than anybody does and every situation is different. [My neighbor has] got very large pastures, he doesn't have a lot of money to invest in his fences, he's got permeable fencing. Predators could come through his fences in multiple places. Dogs could go out. So there's lots of reasons why dogs probably wouldn't solve his problem; you can't just say, ‘Well, he should have dogs’."

Sheep

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

Beyond the quality of fencing, Barinaga points out other animal husbandry practices that determine the efficacy of livestock guardian animals. "Our losses might not be zero if we were pasture lambing, even with the dogs. We try to have everybody lamb in the barn. If all our ewes were lambing outside day and night, then we could take a lot of losses even with the dogs.”

Different strategies are needed, and different ranches have different levels of success with their strategies. But the overall success of Marin's program is apparent.

Indeed, it wasn't long before ranchers starting seeing the improvements, with a steady decline in losses to predators. At the five-year mark, the program was evaluated and found to be so successful that it was adopted as a permanent program.

Success in smaller numbers

An article in the San Francisco Chronicle reports, "In the fiscal year 2002-03, 236 dead sheep were reported. In 2010-11, 90 sheep were killed, according to county records. The numbers have fluctuated over the years — 247 sheep were killed in 2007-08 — but very few ranchers suffer the kind of heavy losses that were common a decade ago... Last year, 14 of 26 ranchers in the livestock protection program did not have a single loss. Only three ranchers had more than 10."

Keli Hendricks feeds a goat

Photo: Keli Hendricks/Project Coyote

In a publication by Project Coyote titled "Marin County Livestock and Wildlife Protection Program: A non-lethal model for coexistence," Stacy Carleson, the Marin Agricultural commissioner, says "losses fell from 5.0 to 2.2 percent, while program costs fell by $50,000. For the first couple years, we couldn't tell if the loss reductions were a trend or a blip. Now we can say there is a definite pattern and livestock losses have decreased significantly."

Barinaga notes, "Marin County is a small county, there's not a lot of sheep here, so there could be other factors to the numbers -- but the losses to predators here are half what they are in counties that have trappers."

Finding a balance in ecology and perspectives

The success doesn't mean ranchers now feel warm and fuzzy toward coyotes. Many ranchers will never like coyotes as a species, and ranchers in this program still have the right to kill coyotes if they follow state and federal laws. But the ability to coexist with few problems has been proven, as has the ability for ranchers and conservationists to work together to achieve goals that at first seem mutually exclusive.

"I'm not a huge fan of coyotes," says Barinaga. "My father grew up on a sheep ranch in Idaho ,and they were using strychnine. We know all the terrible things poisons do, and they're not allowed anymore, but when strychnine stopped being allowed, those sheep ranchers went out of business. Coyotes were the enemy. But when I met Camilla, she has such a sensitivity to the complexities of the issue."

Fox, after years of effort and many long conversations with the local ranchers, has helped to forge a way for everyone — humans, sheep and coyotes alike — to gain.

"Many of the ranchers have fully embraced the program and seen the benefits of it, and now have several years of reaping the benefits to see the many positive attributes of the program," says Fox. "Many ranchers recognize that by keeping a stable coyote population in the area and essentially teaching them that my [livestock] is not your next meal through a variety of predator deterrents, they are essentially keeping coyotes out of the area that may be seeking new territory and that may be more prone toward novel prey."

Sheep on a Marin county ranch

Credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

What's good for the rancher is good for the coyotes

Not only are ranchers changing their minds about non-lethal methods of predator control, but some are very slowly changing their attitude about coyotes as a species.

"I think as our knowledge increases about the critical important role of apex predators on the landscape and maintaining healthy ecosystems and species diversity, we have seen an overall shift in the eyes of many ranchers with regard to the presence and role of predators on farms and ranches,” says Fox. “Now, I wouldn't say that's across the board, but I would say I have certainly seen in my time of 20-plus years of working in the field of conservation a shift, an overall shift in this regard."

Marin's strategy is spreading to other parts of the country as well. Other counties are taking notice and some are beginning to direct some funding to non-lethal predator control. "It is really exciting because it is one of those things that need to scale up. That's part of what Project Coyote's mission is — is to scale-up models of coexistence that have sound efficacy and success."

Marin County ranchers can attest to the fact that the program is indeed one that works.

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