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We need to cut coyotes some slack

In common with some other counties throughout Western Canada, our municipal government has introduced a bounty on coyotes and wolves.

In their rush to a “one size fits all” solution I wonder if participating councils have given sufficient weight to greater good considerations and if verifiable studies have indeed been done affirming conclusively that coyote damage to the cattle industry is as extensive as anecdotally reported.

Relatively few years ago the issue in many parts of the Prairies was not excessive numbers of coyotes but an over abundance of deer and rodents. Agricultural publications featured a constant flow of articles on how to protect winter feed and spring pastures from herds of foraging deer. Drivers were regularly cautioned to elevated vigilance as vehicle accidents involving these relatively large animals were becoming alarmingly widespread .

At the same time unholy multitudes of gophers dug undulating waves of colonies into already drought-stressed fields and pastures. Field mice were endemic, as anyone who worked the land or moved bales could attest.

Deer and rodents are no longer an issue in our immediate area. Deer numbers have literally been decimated and more. Occasional gophers are seen as lonely sentinels on once heavily infested pastures, and mice have drawn down to populations not seen in decades, if ever.

Cause and effect

That rising coyote numbers and declining deer and rodent populations might be cause and effect perhaps needs to be more ably considered. Our provincial government should have moved to change previously high deer populations by correcting the regulatory deer management environment. Onerous hunting fees and short seasons with meat-cutting shops all but impossible to find all contributed to deer populations inevitably rising out of control

These blunders are now being compounded by participating municipalities placing bounties on the very species that solved the excess deer and rodent populations in the first place. This is disingenuous at best and imperceptive at worst.

If we were to compare overall economic damage caused by deer versus coyotes we would need to add the cost of deer-related road accidents. A coyote run over by a car is just another roadkill, flattened by succeeding traffic or shunted into the ditch. A deer/car collision has significant damage potential from minor scrapes to vehicle rollover, injury and operator death.

When ranchers report loss of calves we need to consider broader dynamics beyond the seemingly apparent. That elevated coyote numbers alone are the primary cause is an entirely too one-dimensional conclusion. The more salient question is “why are ranchers losing calves to coyotes at all?”

Reports of calves killed all too frequently originate from the same farms year after year, yet there are fenceline neighbours who have successfully raised cattle for decades without losing a single animal to coyotes. I’m confident definitive studies would show significantly more calves are lost to inadequate shelter, starvation, unsupervised calving, disease and inherent neglect than all coyote, bear and wolf predations combined. That a calf might be found half eaten is no evidence of a predator kill — none.

To suggest coyotes should be summarily shot for consuming already-dead calves drops the level of debate to unhappy standards. Certainly coyotes will attack the calf of a cow disabled in the throes of giving birth if opportunity presents itself, but where is management that such an occasion is at hand?

Care-committed farmers conduct consistent herd monitoring at calving time, and where bush pasture makes supervision difficult, the addition of a llama or donkey has proven to be excellent predator restraint. Both species bond well with cows and are outstanding guards. They are exceedingly watchful and will unhesitatingly kill a coyote (or dog) rather than surrender a vulnerable member to predation.

Producer responsibility

Producers need to address responsibility by examining how they dispose of calves born dead or that die later. Are these bodies being casually tossed onto the traditional “bone yard” or are they buried/burned ? What about afterbirth? Is any effort being made to remove these from the calving area?

Once coyotes find a dependable food source they will keep coming back, and many a coyote has likely been saved from starvation by winning the lottery of finding another hundred pounds of beef lying conveniently dead and accessible near the calving pen.

The issue of too many coyotes would solve itself if they were bloody well just left alone. If affected farmers were to accept that they have individual responsibility and the provincial government were to introduce a better deer management regime combined with a sensible carcass disposal program the downward change in coyote numbers would be dramatic and permanent. Coyotes expanded their population to meet the available (carcass beef, deer and rodents) food supply and would decrease numbers on the same foundation in reverse.

Before we leap too quickly onto the “lets just kill them” bandwagon we might reflect on the good coyotes do. Coyotes are to ranchers what seagulls are to city garbage dumps. As well as keeping the lid on excessive numbers of rodents and deer, they are inveterate scavengers eating virtually anything dead.

Anyone who has been exposed to the stench of a rotting carcass recognizes the service coyotes provide by devouring deceased creatures of all types before decay sets in. Dead cattle will be licked clean to the bone even in the heart of winter. Maggots will eventually do the same job but are active only in hot weather while taking months to accomplish the task. Only if we are inclined toward a blowfly and stink obsession are maggots a viable alternative to coyotes.

We raised cattle for about a quarter century, half of those years in an area where less than 10 per cent of our pastures were open fields. We were backed onto miles of unsettled government land that hosted an abundance of wildlife including large numbers of bears and coyotes. Our dog kept the yard clear of trespassers and on range all species seemed to make whatever accommodations were necessary to live peacefully side by side with the cows.

We have never lost a calf to coyote or bear predation. The only creatures of the forest we truly feared (on behalf of our cattle) were porcupines.

Taxpayer subsidy unnecessary

By inclination or necessity some ranchers will not/cannot spend the required time with their herds and results suffer accordingly. Anyone satisfied with a calf crop of 90 per cent (or less) is neither in the business nor out of it but in a futile holding pattern presumably waiting for circumstances to change one way or the other.

Asking taxpayers to subsidize such operations by billing for coyote and wolf bounties in compensation of presumed damage when inherent management neglect is the primary suspect does not bear the weight of considered logic.

All this aside, I like coyotes. To me, nothing spells “prairie” as much as hearing the near and distant calls of these wild dogs after sunset and before sunrise. They exemplify the ultimate in species survival in an utterly hostile environment where guns, traps, snares and poisons are unremittingly pointed in their direction without remedy.

Coyotes can legally be shot year round on cattle ranches and this is unlikely to change. What I would like to see, as a minor gesture embracing our fading humanity, is a moratorium on killing while pups are still in the den. We need to guard against demonizing any species to the point of advocating total eradication. Such paths are easier found than travelled.

Clearly appeals to consideration of greater good have not yet been successful. Perhaps the debate needs to remain centred on perceived self-interest, and this is entirely a matter of perspective. †

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