Coyotes: to shoot or not to shoot?

Ben Rodenburg has two guardian dogs, but he’d like to have more.

The dogs, Maremma-Great Pyrenees crosses, protect the sheep and lambs at his farm near Ponoka, Alta.

The majority of his 1,400 ewes are usually inside barns because Rodenburg and his wife Heather only have 40 acres.

But, at any time a coyote could sneak into an outdoor pen and pounce on a sheep or attack a stray lamb in the pasture.

Hence the need for dogs.

“We have a pile of coyotes around, so even (with) two dogs, I wouldn’t mind having two more,” Rodenburg said in early March.

“My dogs have been beaten up (by coyotes).”

Guardian dogs, as their name suggests, protect livestock from predators, but they rarely kill coyotes.

Rodenburg takes additional steps to protect his sheep.

“I actually get a friend to do some snaring and he has permits to do so,” he said.

“He’ll go out and snare a bunch of the coyote population, further from my property, so my dogs don’t get snared.”

Rodenburg also shoots coyotes on his farm when he gets an opportunity.

He believes a combination of guardian dogs and lethal methods to control the coyote population is the best strategy to protect his flock.

His position on coyotes, both prevention and killing, may be unusual in Alberta.

University of Calgary research indicates that Alberta ranchers are in one of two camps when it comes to coyotes — shoot or don’t shoot.

“There (are) two groups of producers, in terms of how people live with predators,” said Shelley Alexander, a wildlife biologist who specializes in wolves and coyotes and founded the Canid Conservation Science Lab at the University of Calgary.

Recently, over a period of about 18 months, Alexander interviewed 48 ranchers and landowners in the Foothills region of Alberta. She spent 90 minutes or more at each property, listening to the producers and landowners’ thoughts on coyotes.

“To not be the expert, but to try and understand landowners’ experiences with coyotes, and what worked and what didn’t from their perspective,” she said.

“I don’t want to be viewed as being prescriptive: if you just did this, everything would be fine.”

About half of the families in Alexander’s project do not shoot or kill. That group doesn’t believe coyotes are a big problem.

“Those people will also say … as long as you’ve got a healthy mother and a healthy calf, unless the calf gets far away, coyotes just don’t engage,” she said. “One thing that works is they have good coyotes. They’ve always had good coyotes.”

The other half take a different approach.

They told Alexander that their family has shot coyotes for generations to keep the population in check.

“They’ll talk about, ‘this is what we’ve always done … we just take care of that. We just kill them regularly.’ The belief is, ‘if we don’t kill them regularly, they’re going to overpopulate.’ ”

In many instances, the decision to shoot or not shoot isn’t based on a detailed analysis of the scientific evidence. The beliefs and practices around coyotes are more like a family tradition.

“I don’t have the answer as to why they’re different,” Alexander said.

“It’s traditional.”

A producer’s approach to coyotes may depend on tradition or local beliefs, but there have been scientific studies on predators and how to reduce attacks on livestock.

The results lean heavily in one direction: not killing coyotes.

Coyotes are often described as cunning, wily and sneaky.

They’re also adaptable. They now live in almost every U.S. state and across southern Canada. They can thrive anywhere, including large cities, and biologists have found they can raise their pups in drainage ditches and old pipes.

In the United States, livestock producers, government culling and hunters pushed wolves to extinction in the lower 48 states. However, bounties and culling programs had little impact on coyotes.

“If you want to know that story, just go state-side,” said Carolyn Callaghan, senior conservation biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation in Ottawa.

“The U.S. (Department of Agriculture’s wildlife services) mounted a war for decades on coyotes. A lot of manpower and a lot of cost. Guess who won? It wasn’t the people. Coyotes are still everywhere.”

In some cases, western Canadians have adopted a similar approach.

In 2009, Saskatchewan introduced a $20 bounty on coyotes. The province paid hunters and landowners $1.5 million to kill 71,000 coyotes.

Bob Bjornerud, agriculture minister at the time, said the bounty wasn’t about eradicating coyotes. It was necessary to reduce attacks on pets, calves and sheep.

Some municipalities in Alberta still have bounties. The Municipal District of Bonnyville pays $15 per coyote and $75 per wolf killed. The bounty was cancelled this winter because of COVID-19.

The problem with coyote bounties is simple — they don’t work.

Coyotes have what is called “plasticity” in their behaviour, said Callaghan, who studied wolves and other canids in Banff, Yoho, the Kootenays and Kananaskis for her PhD research.

In the early 2000s, she worked with ranchers in southern Alberta to reduce conflicts between wolves and livestock.

Plasticity means that coyotes quickly adapt to changing conditions.

“If there is full court press on the population, maybe a bounty, they just respond. Suddenly, females that are nine months old are able to breed … they have bigger litters. More of the females breed…. You kill the alpha, you may then have five breeders instead of one because they’re a pack.”

Some biologists believe culling programs have made the problem worse.

The attempts to eradicate coyotes forced them to move outside of their traditional geography in western North America. Even southern cities, like Atlanta, now have problems with coyotes.

The other issue with killing coyotes is the loss of pack structure.

Coyotes live in a family group with the adults in charge.

“It’s the pack unit and the (knowledge) in there (about) what we should and shouldn’t eat, where we should go, who we should be afraid of helps maintain the behaviour that you want,” Alexander said.

If an adult coyote is killed, it breaks down the pack structure and alters the behaviour of the group. It could turn a “good” pack of coyotes, which feed on gophers, mice and other small mammals, into an aggressive pack.

“Then you have a bunch of young animals … without any pack structure to control who reproduces and what they eat,” she said.

“It’s the loss of that whole network. It’s like taking out all the adults in the population and leaving teenagers to run (the show).”

Adrian Treves, a University of Wisconsin wildlife biologist, is an expert in human conflicts with wildlife — particularly large carnivores like bears and wolves.

In 2016, he authored a paper on predator attacks on livestock, where he reviewed published studies on the topic.

The result?

Livestock guardian dogs and other prevention methods reduce attacks on livestock.

Killing carnivores does not.

“Non-lethal methods were more effective than lethal methods in preventing carnivore predation on livestock generally,” Treves wrote in 2016 in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

“At least two lethal methods (government culling or regulated public hunting) were followed by increases in predation on livestock.”

An Alberta Agriculture document on predation also argues that prevention is more useful than killing coyotes.

“Preventing predation is a better approach than any actions that might be taken after predation occurs,” says Coyote Predation of Livestock, which can be found at bit.ly/39qWhpZ.

“There are a number of ways to control livestock predation without removing coyotes. Sometimes all that is required are minor changes in farm management practices that will discourage coyotes from feeding or staying on your property.”

Treves said in an interview that there’s a group of sheep producers in Wisconsin’s Dane County who don’t kill coyotes and rarely suffer livestock losses.

“They really put pressure on their neighbours not to kill coyotes because as soon as someone does … then there’s a spate of lamb losses.”

That is anecdotal evidence, but high-quality research has shown that guardian dogs are effective. They reduce predator attacks on livestock, Treves said.

Other prevention, such as culling lame animals from the herd and keeping cattle in a pen during vulnerable times like calving, may also reduce attacks.

However, Treves has never found a “gold standard” study on lethal methods that showed a reduction in predator attacks on livestock.

For many agricultural practices, farmers expect data and proof before they adopt a new technology. Canola growers want data on yield gains before they try a new pesticide or canola hybrid.

Treves believes the same standard should apply to killing predators.

Bounties and pre-emptive killing should not happen unless there’s proof that it works.

“Sound policy should be consistent with law, scientific evidence and ethical standards of society,” Treves wrote in the 2016 journal article.

“Ethical decisions should also consider the values of society at large and the intrinsic worth of all of the individual animals involved.”

Coyote attacks on lambs and calves can be severe on certain farms and certain geographies, but that’s not key to their diet.

They typically consume gophers, rabbits, mice and slightly larger animals.

“Like racoons and skunks … they keep those mid-sized predators in check,” Alexander said.

They’re not really capable of taking down a large animal because an average western coyote only weighs 40 pounds, Callaghan said.

If coyotes are not around to take out the smaller species, there can be repercussions for livestock producers. It could mean gopher holes all over the pasture because coyotes aren’t putting pressure on the gophers.

“Coyotes consume dead animals and eat rodents that are harmful to agriculture. They are a valuable fur resource and they provide recreation and enjoyment to many people,” says the Alberta Agriculture document Coyote Predation on Livestock.

“These attributes more or less counterbalance the act of coyotes occasionally preying on livestock. It is this philosophy that guides coyote predation management in Alberta.”

Coyotes offer some benefits to the environment and society, but there are times when they should be shot, Callaghan said.

If they are aggressive with humans, or if a producer is doing everything to prevent attacks on livestock and coyotes are persisting, then the animal or group should be taken out.

“You need to deal with that problem,” said Callaghan, who lives on a hobby farm in western Quebec, raising chickens and other livestock.

“This is pretty emotional. If I had a flock of sheep and I had a sheep killed by coyotes … I would be very emotional about it.”

In Saskatchewan, the province hasn’t offered a coyote bounty since 2009, but there is strong support for the concept.

In 2018, the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities passed a resolution asking the province to re-instate the bounty. About 74 percent voted for the resolution.

Arnold Balicki, Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association chair, has doubts about bounties, saying they can provoke a negative reaction from the public.

Still, Balicki believes that Saskatchewan’s coyote population is out of control.

“If you’re a livestock producer, the attacks are more numerous and (overall) losses are greater than they were years back,” he said.

“They (the government) are not doing a very good job when it comes to (managing) coyotes… They need to step up to the plate.”

On his farm near Shellbrook, Balicki carries a rifle on his tractors and quads. He shoots coyotes to keep the population in check.

Producers can take some steps to reduce predation, such as removing dead livestock, which attracts coyotes to the farm, he added.

However, relying on guardian dogs isn’t realistic on a ranch with five or six sections of land.

Therefore, shooting coyotes is necessary.

Balicki said livestock producers don’t want to “eradicate” coyotes, but they represent a genuine threat to a farm’s profitability.

“We want to control the numbers,” he said.

“If we lose 10 or 15 percent of our calf crop to predation, the people in town, would they be happy losing 10 to 15 percent of their income? I don’t think so.”

Wildlife biologists may believe that pre-emptive killing is a mistake, but farmers have to deal with the real-life consequences of coyote attacks.

A 2011 letter to the editor sums up the feelings of many producers.

“In June, a newborn calf on our farm was attacked by a coyote. It grabbed the calf by the tail, gave it a very severe yank…. The tail was nearly ripped off the vertebrae (backbone)…. We were forced to put the calf down due to its severe injuries,” the reader said. “Why do animal rights groups lobby for the protection of coyotes? I believe they are ignorant of the terrible torture and suffering coyotes impose on my calves.”

Biologists aren’t the same as animal rights activists, but experts have failed to communicate the science to farmers — that killing coyotes isn’t an effective strategy.

Scientists may need a different message or approach to bridge the “us versus them,” urban vs. rural divide.

“That divide doesn’t need to be there because we are all working (toward) the same thing, which is good and healthy stewardship of the land,” Alexander said.

“(But) we can’t strictly put this burden on livestock producers. People are eating those (animals). How do we make this a larger societal conversation?”

Maybe that means more compensation for livestock losses from predators or more taxpayer dollars to support guardian dog programs and alternative methods for managing coyotes.

Bigger picture, what’s needed is a shared effort to preserve ranches and the wildlife that live on that habitat.

“We have to start to realize, whether you approve of eating meat or not, ranches are some of the last, big intact pieces of land left. And they are incredibly diverse with species,” Alexander said.

“It’s in all of our interest to make sure we keep multi-generational families on the landscape, caring for the land.”

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