Livestock, wildlife can co-exist: producer

Guardian dogs, fences | The Graziere ranch has been recognized for using protection methods rather than shooting and trapping predators

Louise Liebenberg and Eric Verstappen don’t own a gun, graze 700 ewes in the middle of the bush and have lost only one sheep to a coyote in four years.

When the pair moved to northern Alberta from Holland in 2008, they decided they wouldn’t trap, shoot or hunt the bears, wolves and coyotes on their farm. Instead, the couple chose to use management to keep livestock and predators apart.

“To me, the most important thing is people are so quick to grab the gun and go that route of control,” said Liebenberg, who farms with Verstappen near High Prairie.

The African-born Liebenberg believed they would never win the war against predators if they relied on shooting and trapping predators.

“It’s a never ending problem with coyotes.”

Instead, the pair keep predator kills to a minimum using guardian dogs, electric fences, page wire and night corrals. They also pick up dead stock immediately and don’t lamb when the predators have their young.

“I just find we do a whole series of things,” said Liebenberg.

“You cannot ever leave the stock unprotected. You have got to pay more attention and step up the game.… If we don’t look after our animals well enough, we deserve to be predated on.”

Their Graziere ranch is the first Canadian ranch to be certified Predator Friendly by an American organization that recognizes farms and ranches for practising wildlife stewardship.

Many American ranchers use the Predator Friendly label as a marketing tool to help sell their produce, but Liebenberg doesn’t expect to see the same financial benefit. Instead, she wants to use the certification as a way to increase awareness that livestock and wildlife can co-exist.

Liebenberg said they use eight to 10 Sarplaninac livestock guardian dogs to protect their 700 ewes and 1,000 lambs. They also have 50 Red and Black Angus in the bush close to Winagami Provincial Park.

The guardian dogs are always with the livestock.

If there are more coyotes, wolves or bears in the area, Liebenberg may respond by putting more guardian dogs into the fields.

“You can’t expect one or two dogs to look after a quarter section of bush with 700 sheep.”

Another option might be to delay letting the sheep out of the night corral onto pasture for a couple of hours.

“I try to stay flexible. If every day you have the same routine, coyotes know it.”

Using livestock guardian dogs that are properly trained to stay with the livestock 24 hours a day is key. A dog that wanders over to the neighbours isn’t any use at protecting sheep, she said.

Liebenberg starts lambing in January to prevent wolves and coyotes from teaching their young to prey on newborn lambs. During the summer, electric and page wire fences make it harder for predators to reach the sheep.

Dead sheep are picked up immediately and either composted or frozen for later use as dog food. Most predation habits begin when wildlife start eating dead animals.

Liebenberg said Canadians don’t appreciate seeing wildlife. In Holland, she would be thrilled to see an occasional fox running across the road.

“I think so many people in Canada don’t realize they are one of last few countries that have wildlife wandering around,” she said.

“It’s one of the few wild places left and it would be great if we could conserve it. People can go out in the bush and see a wolf and a bear and enjoy it.”

The County of Big Lakes, where Liebenberg and Verstappen live, placed a bounty on wolves a few years ago in an effort to reduce livestock losses from predators.

Liebenberg believes the bounty shouldn’t be the first approach to wildlife predation.

“Predation up here is a big issue. I am not denying that happens and know it happens. With management and with good animal husbandry and a willingness, there are definitely solutions to a lot of those problems,” she said. “I’m not a fanatical wolf activist. It’s a matter of trying to pay attention to the details.”

Liebenberg hopes their new Predator Friendly label will help raise awareness of the ways farmers and ranchers can work together with nature.

“There are other ways. The predator friendly status is a marketing tool for us to make an awareness that you can ranch in a certain way without killing the wildlife.

“I’m not saying we will never be predated on in the future. That is also an illusion. But it’s about minimizing risk.”

John Buckley, chair of Alberta Beef Producers’ Cow Calf Council, said the organization recently reviewed predator compensation programs in Canada and the United States to see how Alberta’s program compared.

“It’s a growing issue within the province,” he said.

In Alberta, payments are made for 100 percent of the market value for confirmed livestock kills and 50 percent for probable kills. In British Columbia, compensation is paid for 75 percent of confirmed kills and probable losses are not compensated.

In Saskatchewan, 100 percent compensation is paid on verified losses and probable losses are compensated at 50 percent.

The Manitoba government will compensate verified killed livestock at 100 percent after April 1, 2012. Probable losses are compensated at 50 percent.

Buckley said compensation programs are only a Band-Aid approach. Government, the public and producers, need to work together to find a solution of reducing predator losses.

“It’s always much easier to work with nature than against it.”

Buckley said the compensation review is the first step in starting a discussion about livestock-wildlife conflicts. He believes Alberta’s new Land Stewardship Act may be able to enable novel concepts of reducing predation.

“The study shows compensation is not the complete answer,” he said.

“It is one of the tools that can be used but it is not the only tool.”

Claims paid from the Alberta Wildlife Predator Compensation Program for 2010

  • Cougar: 21 – $8,515.66
  • Grizzly Bear: 10 – $8,878.08
  • Black Bear: 12 – $9,556.19
  • Wolf: 162 – $165,111.43
  • Unknown predator: 3 – $2,286.48
  • Total: 2090 – $195,326.29

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