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? What are the lethal control methods and how effective are they ?

Employees of the Wildlife Services division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (formerly called Animal Damage Control, or ADC) have been shooting, trapping and poisoning predators since the early 1900's. Landowners or other private trappers began such efforts even before the taxpayer-funded program was launched. Some poisons and some baiting practices are now illegal, although livestock protection collars (containing poison compound 1080) and other poison devices have been reintroduced in some states. It is illegal to kill some predator species (e.g., grizzlies, wolves), but others are unprotected (coyotes).

There is substantial literature on the merits of the various killing methods, together with considerable discussion of animal cruelty issues, the useful ecological roles of predators, and the risks to nontarget species. We make no attempt to analyze all the potential judgments here. Instead, we focus on questions about the effectiveness of lethal predator control.

Tens of thousands predators [coyotes, mountain lions, (and wolves in the past)] have been killed in this century. Predation of domestic livestock has not been stopped, and in many locations, has not even diminished. Coyotes, the predators responsible for the most damage to livestock, have increased in population since Wildlife Services began, and biologists have documented the coyote's remarkable adaptive responses to population stress. Coyotes produce increased litter sizes and pups exhibit increased survival rates when their populations are harassed. In general, coyote population fluctuations correlate with fluctuations in natural food supplies (mice, gophers, rabbits), not sheep numbers (Wagner, 1972).

Robert Crabtree, a predator biologist, has studied coyote populations in two areas where they have been relatively undisturbed in recent decades -- Yellowstone Park and the Hannford region of Eastern Washington. Crabtree's observations of the natural pack dynamics and reproductive behavior of coyotes suggest that coyotes' numbers, ranges and normal hunting habits are most likely to stabilize when the animals are left alone. Shepherds' own experiences have led some ranchers to reach a related conclusion: the less we harass the coyotes, the less trouble we have with predation. The resilient coyote population statistics tell part of the story; ranchers' remarks add another dimension:

One can also comprehend the logic and emotions of a rancher who wants to kill every coyote it can find near the pasture where its lambs have been mauled by canines. "If I shoot a lamb-killer, it can't kill my lambs". True.
Ranchers who acknowledge that short-term reality, but who forego killing predators because of the long-term benefits of nonharassment, are taking a bold stand against easy assumptions and local expectations of "good shepherding". We ask you to share that risk, and thus the reward of supporting sustainable sheep husbandry.

Questions about the efficacy of lethal control of wolves raise another series of complex questions. The United States demonstrated by the early part of this century that it could effectively eliminate livestock predation by wolves---by eliminating wolves in the West. But coyotes quickly filled in the ecological niche vacated by wolves, so the "solution" was incomplete. (And many Americans believe that extermination of wolves in most of the U.S. created a problematic void, not a "solution"). So, since wolves persist in Minnesota and Michigan; and wolves are recolonizing northern Montana from Canada; and reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone Park are migrating into southwestern Montana, eastern Idaho, and northern Wyoming; sheep producers and consumers of agricultural products have to come to terms with livestock predation by wolves.

Does American society have the right to tell some producers in high-risk areas that they can't raise sheep? Does American society have the obligation to compensate growers who ranch in high-risk areas for all their financial losses due to wolf predation? Does American society have the right to use tax dollars to shoot wolves to protect livestock? Can it justifiably do so, when the American government itself participated in the reintroduction of wolves? How can American society come to grips with the fact that privately-owned ranchlands provide critically important habitat for wildlife in the U.S.? In other words, if we eliminate ranches in the name of wolf protection, thereby enabling subdivision development in wildlife habitat, are we going around in circles? The list goes on. . .

These are tough questions. At Thirteen Mile Farm, we do not know the answers. For us, and for many others, these are not merely academic queries. We live in a region with incredible wildlands which are under mind-boggling development pressure. We strive to support ourselves on our land, but we know we cannot do that if we function within the paradigm of commodity agriculture. We feel like we are successfully learning to coexist with the native predators currently in our vicinity (coyotes, bears, mountain lions, eagles, domestic dogs), but the wolves have not yet reached our neighborhood. They're on the way.

Whether the wolves get here in two years or twenty or not at all, it seems unlikely that our culture will fully resolve those questions. In the meantime, every ranch family will have to manage its own position in the spectrum of agricultural risks. We chose to raise sheep at Thirteen Mile Farm knowing that it was not an extraordinarily high-risk location, but that it could not be risk-free, simply because it is in one of the best semi-arid, cold, sheep-raising regions of North America, where wild animals still exist. That seems like a reasonable place from which to ask you to share the risk and reward of supporting sustainable sheep husbandry.

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THIRTEEN MILE LAMB & WOOL COMPANY
13000 Springhill Road
Belgrade, Montana 59714
(406) 581-8543
becky@lambandwool.com