Ranchers complain of increased predator attacks on herds
FRESNO, Calif. (AP) – California’s cowboys and ranchers are enduring a steep rise in mountain lion and coyote attacks on livestock, and blame a 1998 law banning certain kinds of animal traps for their woes.
Recently released U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show that last year 14,900 cattle and calves were killed by predators in California – up from 5,600 animals killed in 1995, nearly a 170 percent increase.
”A lot of it is due to an increase in the mountain lion population. When they eat, they eat our cattle, there’s no doubt about it. Coyotes are also bad – I don’t know which I’d say is the worst,” said Jo Ann Switzer, third-generation owner of the 10,000-acre Arnold Ranch near Santa Margarita in San Luis Obispo County.
Coyotes are the main culprit, according to the USDA, and are blamed for almost 67 percent of all the cattle and calves killed by predators last year. Mountain lions and bobcats are blamed for 22 percent of the deaths.
The rest of the animals were killed by dogs or black bears, for the most part. The killings cost the state’s ranchers $5 million in lost revenue in 2000.
California’s lion population is guessed to be anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 cats and is considered healthy by state wildlife managers. The state has no estimates for the coyote population.
”Most of the western states saw an increase in mountain lion activity in the last 20 to 30 years,” said Troy Swager, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game.
”For about the last three years, we’ve seen … the number of sightings or conflicts reported going down. That suggests that the lion population has gone down a bit,” Swager said.
In California, however, lions killed 3,300 cattle and calves last year, compared to 1,500 animals five years before, according to the USDA, and ranchers say they continue to spot more big cats and coyotes on their land.
Ranchers insist the best methods for keeping the predator populations in check were banned with the 1998 passage of Proposition 4. The voter-backed proposition prohibited the use of steel-jaw leg-hold traps in California and allows padded-jaw leg-hold traps only in ”extraordinary” circumstances concerning public safety.
Most larger predatory mammals, including foxes and coyotes, are trapped with leg-hold traps.
The initiative also outlawed two pesticides used in predator control: sodium fluoracetate and sodium cyanide.
”We’ve lost the control techniques … and that’s been tragic. The public’s been hoodwinked on that. The modern traps just aren’t that painful,” said Walter Howard, professor emeritus of wildlife biology and vertebrate ecology at the University of California, Davis.
”The main thing people don’t understand is that we don’t have the original predator-prey balance because all the environment has been modified. Nature is crying out for people to be a surrogate predator to fill that need,” said Howard, who studied wild and captive coyotes for 20 years.
Animal rights groups and others supporting the initiative, including the Doris Day Animal League, the Humane Society of the United States and the Sierra Club, said the traps are cruel. Similar laws passed in Colorado, Arizona and Massachusetts.
”It seems like the ranchers and Wildlife Services folks may be in a situation where they have to … do a better job of using nonlethal methods of predator control,” said the Sierra Club’s Warren Alford.
Ranchers often rely on Wildlife Services, a division within the USDA whose mission it is to protect livestock and endangered species from predators, to track, identify and kill lions, coyotes or other animals preying on their herds.
Although lions are protected by law, a rancher who can prove his cows are being killed can get a permit to kill the cat and either shoot it himself, hire someone to do it or bring in a Wildlife Services tracker. Coyotes, which are not protected, can be killed on sight as long as poison or leg traps aren’t used.
Every year since 1995, between about 250 and 300 mountain lion permits were issued and normally about 100 to 120 were killed, according to the Department of Fish and Game.
Forbidding the use of leg traps and poison may well have led to the spike in predator attacks on beef cattle, said Wildlife Services spokesman Larry Hawkins.
”It may be that there is a larger population of coyotes or a shift away from predation in lambs, and so some of (the attacks) may have shifted to calves,” Hawkins said.
The shift away from lambs coincides with the steady decline of California’s sheep industry and an increase in cattle herds. The number of sheep has dropped from 1.2 million in 1980 to 800,000 today. The combined cattle population for both dairy and beef herds increased from 4.8 million in 1995 to 5.2 million this year. The vast majority of predator attacks are on free grazing beef cattle herds.
”They usually prey on calves, the newborn. And a cow who’s having a hard time calving will sometimes be attacked by a pack of coyotes who will actually start to eat the calf as it’s being born or even the backside of the cow if she’s too weak to fight them off,” Switzer said.
Some environmentalists think that removing or killing predators that aren’t attacking stock animals – which wildlife managers say happens when the animals are threatening humans or when individual predators have been misidentified as livestock killers – ranchers may be doing themselves more harm than good.
When a male lion is removed, a juvenile lion without any hunting skills may move in to take his place and sometimes is not skilled enough to get deer, so it goes go for the easy kill, such as poodles or calves, said Lynn Sadler of the Mountain Lion Foundation.
”More and more of the research is becoming very clear that when you remove a predator, sometimes you make your problem much worse,” Sadler said. ”If you get rid of the mountain lions, you’re likely to see a bloom of coyotes. Then, when you remove the coyotes, you’re likely to see a bloom of skunks, and so on.”
Still, ranchers aren’t going to stop tracking and killing predators they suspect of preying on their herds any time soon, said Peter Bradford, who runs Mendocino County ranch near Booneville.
”The industry is making due and enduring. Most guys will just ‘shoot, shovel, and shut up,”’ said Bradford, echoing the mantra of cowboys who kill coyotes or lions, bury them on the range and never mention it to state or federal wildlife managers.
”Anyone who has livestock and witnesses a lion molesting or worrying their animals has the right to kill it,” Bradford said.
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