Cat Urbigkit: Animal Damage Control Isn't A “War On Wildlife”

Columnist Cat Urbigkit writes, "When Erik Molvar of the Western Watersheds Project tells the public that the livestock industry “still dreams of driving large carnivores extinct once and for all” and is working to “further their goals of accelerating predator extinctions,” how is anyone to know that he is telling a lie?"

Cat Urbigkit

June 06, 20238 min read

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After another long rainy day, on Friday I did one last check of the lambing grounds on private land and found two dead lambs, their heads bloodied as their eyes were pecked out and their tongues severed and consumed by their killer – typical of avian depredation. Both lambs were a few days old, but the kills were fresh.

Our livestock guardian dogs have been engaged in an active conflict with two bald eagles attracted to all the newborns arriving during this peak of our lambing season. The dogs have done a great job of scaring the birds away, but no method of deterrence is perfect, and even our combined methods fail sometimes.

What do we do now? We’re trying to handle the situation on our own, but if we have any further kills, I’ll call in animal damage control specialists for assistance. We rarely have eagle attacks on our flock, but we have had a few kills by both golden and bald eagles in the past. Because migratory birds are federally protected, we work with USDA Wildlife Services to deter avian predators and to initiate control when we can’t get the damage stopped.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that wildlife researchers finally began believing that eagles killed domestic sheep.

A March 1978 paper by Bart O’Gara of the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit summed up the situation: “Documentation of eagle predation is generally lacking. The public seldom accepts rancher's accounts of any type of predation, apparently suspecting ulterior motives. Indoctrination by animal protection groups has convinced many people that predators prey only on species that are detrimental to man. Another theme stemming from the same source is that predation on domestic livestock is always the result of poor animal husbandry, and that slight changes in management would solve the problem.”

We now know that both bald eagles and golden eagles kill sheep, and not just lambs but adult sheep as well. Bald eagles killed 54 lambs on one Idaho farm in 2021. One Johnson County ranch has had eagles congregate to prey on both lambs and adult sheep, and has worked to have the eagles trapped and removed (either to distant locations or for use in falconry). The cooperative response to eagle depredations in Wyoming has been successful and continues to reduce conflicts.

So it’s this scenario in which I sat down to skim the news and read a recent news article noting that Wyoming is slated to spend $4 million to kill coyotes and other predators, generating a slew of comments expressing contempt for the livestock industry. Here’s a sampling:

“What a horrendous slaughter of creatures simply living their innocent lives on public lands.”

“Face it, the Stockgrowers just plain hate predators and will use any means possible to hire hitmen to assassinate canines, big cats, and bruins. It isn’t reparations… it’s revenge.”

“The damage animals do is greatly exaggerated by those that want to justify their actions and act like a hero for killing an animal that is not all that different than our dogs. It was not that long ago that most birds of prey were shot on sight by the same kind of people that want to kill our predators today.”

From calling livestock producers “welfare ranchers” to suggesting that ranchers aren’t doing anything to protect their herds, many of the commenters were generally disdainful of the livestock industry, of which I am a member.

And it’s no wonder. When Erik Molvar of the Western Watersheds Project tells the public that the livestock industry “still dreams of driving large carnivores extinct once and for all” and is working to “further their goals of accelerating predator extinctions,” how are they to know that he is telling a lie?

Those who believe his falsehoods (which are elevated by groups like Wyoming Untrapped) fund his anti-grazing organization and perpetuate the demonization of ranchers, continuing the cycle of conflict, with little interest or knowledge of the complexities on the ground, or the science that doesn’t support the anti-ranching agenda.

A livestock producer seeking to control problem predators is not the same as wanting to eradicate a species. Do you take action to control mice or rats in your home, or use swatters or glue strips to control house flies, or take action to kill houseplant pests, and or control mosquitos in your yard?

Just because an animal is found in nature doesn’t mean that it doesn’t cause damage, or that it is unreasonable to take action to control damage. Think about it from an urban perspective: from termites eating on a house foundation, flickers drilling holes in walls, bats congregating and depositing guano in an attic, ants infesting your kitchen, gophers digging holes in your yard, to nesting ospreys starting fires and knocking out power lines, goose damage to public athletic fields, golf courses and town parks, and on and on. Just because humans seek to control damage caused by animals doesn’t mean that anyone is seeking the eradication of the species involved.

Don’t harbor ill will against livestock producers based on the assumption that we’re animal haters who want to eradicate predators. It’s not true: You’ve been told a lie.

Now, back to the $4 million for predator control in Wyoming, and the assumption that the money is spent to kill coyotes to benefit livestock. That ignores the rabies monitoring and control efforts undertaken by local predator boards (21% of the skunks removed in Sheridan County tested positive for rabies in 2021), as well as numerous projects designed to enhance survival of sage grouse chicks and mule deer fawns, relocation of depredating eagles, reduction of raven damage at industrial sites and congregating near landfills, educational activities, and research on methods to reduce depredations by large carnivores. Read about some of these activities here.

Yes, the majority of the money is spent on coyote control, and that statement will generate responses that such control is ineffective in the medium- to long-term, which is true. That’s why coyote control happens every year. The goal is not to eradicate coyotes, but to control coyote depredation on livestock (and wildlife in some cases).

Coyotes are one of the most successful and abundant predators on the continent, with distribution throughout North American, Mexico and into Central America. The Canid Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports: “Localized control efforts have sometimes temporarily reduced population size, but they quickly rebound through migration and breeding, and coyote populations generally are stable or increasing in most areas.”

The group reports: “There are no current major threats to coyote populations throughout their range. Local reductions are temporary and their range has been expanding. Conservation measures have not been needed to maintain viable populations. Coyotes adapt to human environs and occupy most habitats, including urban areas.”

New research on coyote control to benefit mule deer fawns mirror what livestock producers know about coyote removal from western lambing grounds. The researchers wrote: “We found that consecutive years of predator removal increased survival of neonate mule deer more than a single year of removal. We also found that removing coyotes from areas near fawn birth sites increased fawn survival, whereas removing coyotes from areas farther from birth sites did not influence fawn survival.” The researchers noted that their results “underscore the need for coyote removal programs to employ removal efforts over consecutive years to maximize effectiveness.”

Although we use lethal control of predators as one strategy, that’s not our only strategy. We use dozens of non-lethal techniques to protect our livestock. While we believe these techniques help to minimize conflicts, and reduce the amount of damage our livestock suffer, lethal control remains an important tool as well. Not every technique is used by every producer, and not every technique works for all situations. As a comprehensive paper on coyote depredation noted: “Differences in the magnitude, nature, and history of problems caused by coyotes, as well as the circumstances in which they occur, dictates a need for a variety of techniques and programs to resolve problems.”

While some animal advocates pretend that any killing of a predator is indication of a “war on wildlife,” that’s a false narrative. I think most would agree that we don’t want a coyote snatching a small child from the front lawn, or a black bear attacking children in the driveway of their home, or a group mountain lions camping out under the deck of a house. We don’t want conflicts with wild animals, so we take steps to minimize risk of harm, stop the damage when it occurs, and reduce the risk of future damage.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Disclaimer: I am an officer of the Sublette County Predator Board and the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, and I serve on the Predator Committee of the American Sheep Industry Association. I am not anti-predator, but I am anti-Western Watersheds Project.

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Cat Urbigkit

Public Lands and Wildlife Columnist