Coyotes are more ag-friendly, and sheep are smarter, than many people give them credit for, a Wyoming sheep rancher said.
“That’s what amazing to me. You would think that coyotes just look like coyotes, that they’re all uniform the way we look at them. But the sheep can tell the difference between coyotes. The sheep can, but I can’t,” Ed Fowler told Cowboy State Daily.
For the past 30 years, Fowler has run anywhere from 115 to 230 sheep on his place near Riverton. And on at least two occasions, coyotes have become “guards” for his flock instead of predators.
‘I Was All Ready To Shoot’
Like many ranchers, Fowler has lost sheep — particularly lambs — to predators. He assumed the main culprits were coyotes, and so he always kept a rifle handy.
“I’ve shot maybe eight coyotes since I’ve been here (over) 30 years. And every one of them was working (actively attacking) the sheep,” he said.
However, several years ago, Fowler said his attorney was on the way out to his place and saw something unusual.
The attorney told Fowler he’d seen a coyote out among his sheep — apparently eating the afterbirth of newborn lambs — and the sheep were unperturbed by the canine’s presence.
Fowler said the attorney’s story was enough to make him reconsider what he at least thought he knew about sheep and coyotes.
But the real test came later when he also spotted a coyote among the sheep and grabbed his rifle.
“This one (coyote), I was all ready to shoot, until I noticed the sheep weren’t alarmed,” he said.
Fowler had the coyote in his crosshairs and finger on the trigger, but he hesitated.
He’s glad he did.
Over the next few years, the sheep and that coyote developed a mutually beneficial relationship, Fowler said.
The coyote would sate its appetite on fare that might seem loathsome by humans’ relatively delicate sensibilities, but is apparently highly nutritious for coyotes. Mainly, afterbirth and fresh lamb feces.
Meanwhile, the coyote kept at bay others of its kind that might have had ill intent toward the sheep, Fowler said.
“I used to watch them through a night vision scope,” he said. “One night, a couple of other coyotes started to approach, and my coyote sat down between the sheep and the other coyotes and just stared at them until they left.”
Eagle-Stomping ‘Beautiful To See’
Meanwhile, Fowler said the sheep taught him a thing or two about how smart — and capable of defending themselves — that they could be.
He said he eventually surmised that it was eagles, and not coyotes, that were killing most of his lambs.
He recalled how one ewe had twin lambs, only to quickly lose one to a hungry eagle. The ewe wasn’t going to let that happen twice.
“She learned to look up, which I thought was amazing,” Fowler said. “Not all sheep are that smart. It (the eagle) came back the next day for her other twin.
“It hit the twin at about the same time she hit it. And she just stomped it. Stomped it, stomped it, stomped it. It was beautiful to see.”
‘Fired Him On The Spot’
Fowler’s “guard coyote” ultimately met an untimely end, he said.
He’d hired a new ranch hand who was too quick on the trigger and shot the coyote after spotting it next to a dead sheep, Fowler said.
He said he didn’t believe that the coyote had slain the sheep and cut the sheep’s carcass open. Sure enough, the condition of the lungs indicated that the sheep had died of pneumonia.
“I fired him on the spot,” Fowler said of the trigger-happy hand.
‘I’ve Got Another One Working For Me’
He said that since then, another coyote has shown up to take the first one’s place. He hasn’t seen it yet, but has heard it “yapping” at night sometimes.
And because the sheep don’t seem alarmed, and he hasn’t lost any lambs this spring, Fowler figures he might have another “guard coyote.”
“I’ve got another one working for me now,” he said.
New Respect For Predators
Fowler said his experiences have changed his mind about not only coyotes, but predators in general, and he wonders if the typical hardline approach to them is effective.
“I had a female mountain lion that was also near my place for years and didn’t lose any sheep to her either,” he said.
He stressed that he’s not against shooting coyotes, especially when they’re actively attacking livestock. But rather, he encourages ranchers to wait and watch as he did if a particular coyote doesn’t appear to be stressing the sheep.
‘Shoot On Sight’ In Wyoming
In Wyoming, coyotes are considered a “predatory species,” meaning a species that can cause damage to agriculture and may be shot on sight at any time, with no bag limits.
The Wyoming Legislature earlier this year passed a bill allowing coyotes to be hunted at night on public land with night-vision scopes, spotlights and similar equipment.
There’s also been speculation that coyote hunters could set up near wind farms and shoot coyotes as they come in to gorge on the carcasses of birds killed by turbine blades.
Fowler said it can be a matter of shooting the right coyotes. Most coyotes that get shot by hunters are “out in the open, hunting mice.”
So, the ones that are actively attacking livestock might still evade hunters, he said.
‘Guard Coyotes’ Might Not Work For All Ranches
Jim Magagna, who represents the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and Wyoming Woolgrowers Association, told Cowboy State Daily that he thinks Fowler’s story is intriguing. However, he doesn’t think the “guard coyote” model would work for many ranchers.
“I would say that it would have a lot to do with the particular circumstances, the type of range he’s in,” Magagna said of Fowler’s experiences.
When sheep are in a relatively small area, it might work to cut a coyote a break and see what happens, he said. However, when thousands of sheep are scattered across a vast range, the risk would be too great.
Guard dogs can help drive off coyotes on the open range, but even they have their limits, Magagna said.
“When you have two or three dogs on a coupe of thousand sheep, they do what they can,” Magagna said. “Some combination of lethal (predator) control and guard dogs is what works best for most producers.”
Mark Heinz can be reached at Mark@CowboyStateDaily.com