Coyotes and Wolves and Bears, Oh My! Predators can have a serious effect on ranchers’ bottom line
Kristy Wardell knows what it looks like when a coyote kills a sheep. And when a wolf kills a sheep. And when a grizzly bear kills a sheep. She’ll tell you she’s had entirely too much experience with the remains of predator attacks on livestock.
Wardell’s family has raised sheep and cattle near Fontenelle, Wyoming for decades, running on private land and government allotments.
Wolves have recently become more of a problem. Wardell suspects two wolf attacks this summer and fall, each resulting in the deaths of eight to 10 ewes. “Coyotes don’t kill eight to 10 in one night and just leave,” she said. Staff from the USDA Wildlife Service never made contact with the sheepherder, so the attacks weren’t confirmed, but two neighbors who had similar attacks had them confirmed as wolf kills.
When they were on the Upper Green, Elk Ridge complex of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, allotment, the largest allotment in the Forest Service system, they had a lot more trouble with all predators, but especially grizzly bears. “If we didn’t have them in an electric fence every night they’d (grizzly bears) scatter sheep everywhere. They’d hit them and just slaughter them there,” Wardell said.
The Forest Service began requiring an electric fence, which had to be moved every day. “The fence was a good thing,” Wardell said, in spite of being required to move the 1400 to 2100-foot electric fences every day.
When they were running sheep in that allotment they lost as many as 300 ewes and 200 lambs per year. Last year they gave up that allotment because of increased regulation. In an attempt to get something out of a situation that was rapidly degenerating, Wardell’s family sold it in a deal put together by the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation. “They [the government agencies] were micromanaging and they were going to violate us off [keep finding violations until they could cancel the permit], then we wouldn’t have anything,” Wardell said.
This year, without the allotment, they lost 33 ewes and 65 lambs, thanks to wolves and coyotes. “We almost went into shock because we haven’t had near the predator losses because of where we were at,” Wardell said.
While many ranchers don’t have to worry about grizzly bears when they’re out night-checking, some have to worry about mountain lions, and the concern over coyotes is nearly universal.
“The coyote is the number-one predator since it’s so common,” said John Steuber, Montana state director/supervisory wildlife biologist for U.S. Department of Agriculture APHIS Wildlife Services. “Although the larger predators like the wolves and grizzly bears receive more attention, coyotes are the main predator, especially of sheep and young calves. They are wide-ranging carnivores who range all over the state (and almost all states) and cause damage in every area.”
Steuber explains that wolf depredation varies from year-to-year, but has been dropping. “Some of this can be attributed to the hunting and trapping season in Montana, as the state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks has more than 200 wolves legally harvested with a wolf license.”
In Wyoming, landowners in some areas can kill wolves at any time without a license, and in other areas a license is required from Oct. 15 to the end of February, but no license is required for the rest of the year. In another area hunting is allowed only with a license and during the hunting season.
Wardell said only one wolf has been killed from the pack they think attacked her sheep and the neighbors’. “They’re so smart it’s hard to shoot them. The wolves are hitting in the middle of the night. It’s pretty hard to do anything with them when it’s like that.”
One of the reasons cattle numbers killed by wolves may be higher than sheep is because of the sheer number cattle vs sheep on summer range. “There are a lot more cattle allotments than sheep allotments,” Steuber says.
Grizzly bears are expanding their range, so predation is increasing. “They are moving east of the Rocky Mountains and some have been seen near Tiber Damn, some by Sanford. One was just seen in the Big Belt Mountains,” Steuber says. “They are heading east. Historically they were east of the Rockies, but haven’t been there for 100 years. A grizzly is not as apt to kill for food as they eat roots, plants, moths and other dead stuff. As you get the bears moving into cattle country, however, there will be increasing predation.”
Wardell has seen that first-hand. “We have an overabundance of both wolves and bears. There are just too many. We have wolves clear down where we live. That’s bad news. They shouldn’t be down there. They need to be thinned down. I’m not sure what the answer is or how to do it.”
Finding the culprit
Wildlife predation determination takes detective work. The first step is finding out how an animal was killed, which may lead to the predator. “Coyotes generally grab an animal by the throat, causing their victim to die of suffocation. Then they will start feeding on the animal. Sometimes there won’t be a big wound from the outside because they grab onto the throat and hold it. Sometimes there is nothing harmful visible until the dead animal is skinned and you can then see the trauma at the throat.”
“Remember not all animals are the same or kill the same,” says Steuber. “The main thing we will look for is to make sure the animal was alive when it was killed. All of these predators will scavenge a carcass. You look to see if the animal bled or look for tissues that shows bruising where the bite marks are. The distance between canines can help identify the killer, as well.”
The grizzly will grab and animal by the face and crush the nasal area. Often they will bite along the backbone when attacking something large, like adult cattle. Attacks by cougars/mountain lions are usually on the underside of the neck as they crush the windpipe and puncture the neck. With smaller animals, they attack the base of the neck or top of the skull.
Knowing animal tracks and feces may help to identity the predator, but may not be entirely accurate.
If you find a dead animal you suspect has been killed a predator, it’s important to protect the carcass. Cover it with a tarp to keep magpies and eagles away, then call the USDA Wildlife Services, who conduct all the investigations.
“The USDA Wildlife Service is the only group who can confirm the kill for compensation,” says Steuber. “You don’t need to call you state fish and wildlife department—call USDA Wildlife Services in your state. They will interview the resource owner, travel to the site and conduct an investigation, performing a complete necropsy. The animal will be skinned from nose to hoof. Sometimes it can be very difficult to tell because predators are also scavengers. Say coyotes kill a calf, but a grizzly bear came along and took it over. Or sometimes wolves will kill a cow and a grizzly will take it over. Maybe the animal died of natural causes, then the wolves got it and then the grizzly came along. It really is quite an art and science to identification.”
Other predators include mountain lions/cougars, black bears and birds of prey.
Depredation by birds such as ravens or eagles tends to be localized, and is more common in high-density situations, such as calving pens. According to Steuber, birds tend to prey on very young calves, often while it’s being born not only killing the calf but doing extensive damage to the cow.
There are ways to try to mitigate losses. More sheep producers are bringing their ewes into a lambing shed, resulting in a reduction in predator control. This especially saves the animals from depredation by eagles and ravens. Steuber says if you can keep newborn calves close to home until they are two to three months old, it helps reduce predation. If possible, bringing the animals into a night pen can help. Herders can keep predators at bay, as can guard dogs. Guard dogs can be very effective against coyotes, but are less effective against wolves.
“We just completed a study on different breeds of guard dogs that are effective against wolves,” says Steuber.
The agency is looking at an electric fence system called turbo fladry—an electric fence with flags on it— in the northwest part of Montana. “It’s novel and different, and wolves are afraid of it. “Of course, when the novelty wears off, the wolves may then approach the fence, but it’s electrified. We’re hoping that will reinforce the wolves staying away and give very young animals time to mature.”
“Last year, we put fladry out on nine properties with assistance from some wildlife groups,” says Steuber. “This is for use with small 40-60-acre pastures. It’s not practical for large pastures, as it costs $3,000 per mile. However, you can use it year after year. You can get about 3-4 years out of the flags and wire, but the posts and solar charger go longer. We’re seeing success with this.”