Monthly Archives: March 2014

Life with Coyotes

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A good annual nutrition program for a coyote would be a 1000 mice, 500 gophers, 1000 grasshoppers and other large insects, 500 lbs of the assorted dead, weak, diseased, wounded, and dying critters, plus a fair number of rabbits, ground nesting birds, fish, frogs, snakes, lizards, and fruits and nuts. Wildlife biologists in South Dakota have estimated that on average coyotes consume by weight; 55% mammals (mainly rodents and rabbits),15% birds,15% carrion, 10% vegetation (mostly plums, apples, watermelons, and other fruits), and 5% grasshoppers and other insects.

With their long slender snout, extremely fast reflexes, and pouncing ability, they are the world’s best mouse trap. Their hearing is good enough that they can pinpoint the position of the mouse, vole, or other small critter rustling under the snow, pounce on the exact spot, pin the critter down, snap it up, flinging it high into the air as a flourish, catching and gulping it down in one fluid motion.

It is unfortunate that coyotes discovered that lambs were so weak, helpless, and tasty. Unlike deer, antelope, and other wild young that are well-hid, camouflaged, and defended, most mother sheep are, well, sheepish, and easy. Lambburger is the McDonald’s of coyote lunches. A little dangerous, but oh so convenient. I raised sheep for many years, and I did finally find some hair sheep (non-sheared), where the mothers had some fight in protecting their young. I know because both my dog Lop and I got run over a few times moving lambs into a protected spot. However, even the best ewes are nothing like the whitetail doe that nailed my nosy dog in the cattails. The dog blundered onto a fawn and came streaking out soaking wet, yipping, and with a doe inches behind, dead set on catching him, and finish stomping the life out of him. Good open field maneuvers and a low trailer saved young Lop’s day. Old Lop and the wild of his kind are not overly brave around sloughs come Spring.

It would have been the cultural norm for me to take up an annihilation philosophy toward coyotes, but life pushed me to a different mindset. The history of domestic livestock depredation especially through the 1960s into the 1970s is wrought with mass poisoning extermination plans of predators. I never took much stock with poisoning, and these plans failed miserably as most of the coyotes or other targeted predators poisoned were those more prone to eat the poisoned carrion than to kill a lamb for breakfast. Hence, the coyotes with a taste for fresh killed meals multiplied and instead of having families of 2- 4 pups, which is normal with a balanced food supply, the female coyotes sensed the loss of competition for food and had litters of 7- 10. It makes sense that most of these pups learned their parents’ habit of avoiding the carrion. All we succeeded doing was destroying rodent control, and hurting the sanitation service and disease reduction coyotes had provided over the centuries to our game animal world. The more we unbalanced the web of life, the more we knocked the population balance of one species like coyote out of sync, and the bigger were the resulting problems we had to find another fix for.

My favorite coyote story is Don Coyote by Dayton O Hyde. Dayton, a rancher in an Oregon mountain valley of the 1950s through the 1970s, tells one of his great ranching stories around a three-legged coyote, The Don. In the story he describes a summer when meadow mice destroy all his meadows and seriously imperil his cattle operation. He connects this with the massive coyote poisoning and trapping program that had wiped out the primary meadow mice predator, which were the smaller coyotes living in the valleys closest to man. He told how the poison took untold numbers of non-target animals and how, later, the larger desert coyotes moved in to fill the annihilated coyotes’ void. He related how these larger coyotes were much more damaging to the sheep ranchers, who still didn’t get that the best protection came from targeting the lamb-loving coyotes, not the whole species. That the species filled an important ecological function, and besides being important to nature, coyotes were important to mankind including sheep people who needed rodent control like everybody else. Dayton was a rancher who could envision the whole picture.

Coyotes are usually seen out hunting by themselves or sometimes working in pairs, although they often have fairly sociable extended family groups that take turns helping the parents feed and guard the pups. This makes it, so even when both parents have been killed, the pups still have a good chance of surviving. Coyotes have become so wary that they are even a test for today’s coyote hunters with an arsenal of high tech calls, recordings, baits, scents, camo, and such. Actually, South Dakota along with Kansas and Missouri were states that caught on early and moved more toward eliminating the problem coyote(s) rather than just wholesale killing.

In the northeastern U.S. with an explosion of the whitetail deer population, there are reports of some hybrids between the wolves out of Canada and coyotes moving in from the west. Around human population centers, wolves are bold enough to get themselves killed, but the hybrid seems to have enough of a coyote’s wary nature to survive, and in gaining some size from the wolf side, they are better able to harvest at least the weaker, less thrifty deer. Some deer hunters are paranoid about the hybrid messing up their easy to find deer bonanza, but they should recognize that coyotes help keep the deer population healthy. Humans sure aren’t going to select the weak, diseased, and wounded. With small islands of domestic stock growers, the hybrid would obviously be more capable of taking calves. There is something to be said for protective (snotty) mother cow vs the sweet-natured one that lets us easily tag her calf.

Especially in the West, coyotes, although a third to one-fifth the size of wolves, and lacking the pack hunting nature, look similar enough to have gotten spill over vilification and persecution due to the age-old wolf paranoia. But today, even with the wolf there is hope we can get livestock protection without annihilation, letting the wolf fill its niche in the big game ecology of the extensive western public lands. I have a good rancher friend, Garl Germann, who is working with wildlife agencies experimenting with daytime herding, combined with nighttime portable corral systems. I believe that this test bed will get enough positive results to be eventually mandated for grazing leases on public land, and will likely be considered by some ranchers for grazing their private lands. Besides getting holistically managed herding to upgrade the grasses and protect the riparian (near the rivers) areas, the quick, easy nighttime corrals keep livestock depredation by wolves down. Garl has a blog site called Rodearing (Spanish for rounding up) that explains the overall process. Key to the system is something that early Polish peasants learned about how wolves could be funneled into a trap by ropes with old rags tied at intervals. The wolves refused to duck under the flapping rags even with hunters pressing in hot pursuit. The idea has been adapted and used as a way to make nighttime corrals keep wolves away. Portable electric fence keep the cattle herd concentrated, while the plastic flags strung along it (fladry) keep the wolves from ducking under. The wolves eventually do test the fladry after about 60 days, often by biting it. Which makes venison look so much more attractive.

We don’t have wolf packs here, so I don’t have to put up a carnival corral. I get to raise cattle with relative peace of mind. Even with calves around here, coyotes only get the afterbirth from the cattle that have lost the instinct to do so themselves; and if the calf dies in birth, the cow can hold the coyotes at bay for several hours before letting it become a coyote banquet. I’m still a little amazed when I see cattle let a coyote walk by or even though the herd without much fanfare. Occasionally a couple mother cows will stare or give a short chase.

And sorry, you’ll have to read the Dayton O. Hyde’s story to find out what happens to Don Coyote.

Lessons from Dr. Pallaoro

One Fall day of my youth, my mom dropped me off at our vet’s clinic (Dr Pallaoro) where I got to ride along on a few weekends. Supposedly, I had mentioned being interested in being a vet when I grew up. My mother thought this was a grand idea, and had cornered Doc Pallaoro into letting me tag along, but I can’t remember having any thoughts about growing up, let alone a career. Possibly a few vague thoughts of being a farmer. Weekends were for scraping together dangerous tree forts, radical bike operation, and generally walking on the edge, as I remember it.

But at the clinic I climbed into Dr. Pallaoro’s pickup with my big sack lunch, and we spent a typical large animal vet’s morning, visiting sick cattle, sheep, and horses. The last stop that morning was to post (post-mortem) a horse that had obviously died several days earlier. Obvious because I could smell the stench before I saw it. About the time the intestines were all uncoiled and cut open and all the worms spilled out, you could cut the fumes. It was only ego and sheer will that kept what little breakfast was left down.

I was amazed by Doc Pallaoro’s unperturbed manner as he cheerfully explained the different organs, how they worked, and what we were seeing in great detail. I might have remembered some of it, if two of my senses weren’t on over load. With the case solved, we walked back to the truck and got our lunches. Sitting on a log under a nice shade tree, Doc Pallaoro sounding puzzled and amazed said: “A big GROWIN’ boy like you ISN’T HUNGRY!” I started to cement an idea of the nature of this man when we were done for the day and with a smile and twinkling eyes he hid a big open bag of manure behind his partner’s truck seat.

Our ancient ancestors developed senses that still today help warn us away from rotting and putrid things, but how about the recent scary human inventions and interventions now in our food?

It takes more time and labor to produce good healthy food without the inventions, but there are advantages. Besides producing food that is in sync with what our ancestors’ bodies adapted to, it is what plants, soil and nature on the prairie co-evolved with. Central to today’s prairie process is mob grazing, or moving cattle everyday or so, which mimics the herd-plant relationship that evolved when the buffalo roamed the prairie. Buffalo were constantly on the move. Today’s frequent moving of cattle has been streamlined with the invention of lightweight, easy to use electric fencing and modern piped livestock watering systems, but it takes extra time and the returns are mostly longer term so it is a hard sell to other ranchers.

There has been a little better success in selling something called patch burn grazing. The Nature Conservancy is primarily the one around here doing patch burn. I described this a few newsletters back, but basically the method burns a different piece of open prairie every year, which results in cattle preferring to start out grazing the flush of early grasses that spring up on the burned area, and re-grazing the continuing growth of tender young grass rather than grazing the grass mixed with old coarse thatch in other areas. So the cattle graze one area of a range hard one year, but let it rest for a few years while other areas are targeted. Not quite the graze hard one day and the buffalo herd moves on, allowing for a long rest, but much better than having it grazed long and hard every year, as is often the case in conventional ranching. Patch-burn grazing produces wildlife and diversity advantages and has become a common conservation tool on native prairie owned by the public and conservation organizations.

The annual plains states patch-burn grazing tour and conference was here in Gary at the end of September. We had tours of a couple sites where patch-burn has been ongoing including 7-Mile Fen that adjoins my property. I sold this piece of native prairie to The Nature Conservancy and they have rented it back to me the past few years. It is great for me as they do the extra work of burning off a different portion every Spring, and I get affordable extra acres of improved stock cow grazing and wildlife habitat next door. The sit down conference portion was at Buffalo Ridge, a large set of beautiful brick buildings (the old School for the Blind) transformed into the perfect place for reunions, weddings, anniversaries, and conferences. (Buffalo Ridge has a nice restaurant so come on up, have supper, pick up meat and or see my operation. Enough requests for grassfed beef and maybe I can get them to start buying!)

It was noted at the end of the conference that there is a limit on how many patches of ranchers land they can burn every Spring, because of the expensive fire control equipment and trained manpower needed. Since bigger conservation budgets aren’t likely, future expansion depends on rancher cooperatives being trained, self financed, and doing Spring burning themselves. This would be around calving and fixing fence, so will ranchers find the incentive, the time, and the money?

I don’t know what will happen, all I know is that we have to somehow rescue our grasslands. Rescue them from over grazing and more importantly, rescue them from the farm bills big safety net under commodity crops like corn and beans, intensifying the strangle hold of an industry that has grown up around corn and beans, and is resulting in our grasslands vanishing to feed the beast. The government is floating the commodity chemical complex which makes for, among other things, cheap cattle feed, and any land that can grow corn or beans becomes to expensive for anyone with inclinations to grow anything else, like grass. If the public wants the benefits of air, water, food, and wildlife friendly grasslands then they need to scream about the farm bill that politicians are currently haggling over.

We need more healthy grasslands, patch burn or mob grazed, I don’t care. Although I am partial to mob grazing as why invest money and time in patch burn when you can multiply the productivity advantages by embracing mob grazing. The trampling and much more frequent pulsing of the vegetation in mob grazing maximizes the nutrient cycling and productivity of the soil, and more productivity means more pounds of beef produced per acre. Ranchers as a whole like diversity and wildlife, and the conservationists among us early adapters are already figuring out the nuances of how to maximize wildlife habitat.

Back to the conference; the comment that I found most encouraging at the conference was that Minnesota will probably use their recently passed Legacy Tax to try and connect much of their fragmented conservation lands. Even though any amount of grass or natural prairie is valuable for wildlife, it has become clearer that large tracts of prairie are much better than many small ones. If Minnesota can enroll landowners in federal conservation easement programs or buy land to create connecting corridors that would link with existing conservation land, they can allow plants and animals to move and expand many miles without having to cross a border prickling with chemicals and cultivation.

We often think in terms of deer and pheasants that can easily cross stretches of cropland, but how about frogs, snakes, dung beetles, microbes, or native plants? Even if these corridors are only a half-mile wide in spots, having them unbroken in length for miles would be a boon to the myriad of life central to a native prairie. In our conference tour of the large Chippewa Prairie I was fascinated by the research on the movement of the hognose snakes. They found that the snakes move over a huge area and seemingly seek out different landscapes different times of the year. Also, it was noted how the plentiful pheasants all to often lay a lone egg in an established not so plentiful grouse nest. The grouse population is further diminished because the incubation time for pheasants is a few days less then grouse, and the mama grouse gives up on the rest of the eggs and takes off with the single pheasant chick. Also of note was that populations of two common prairie butterflies, the Poweshiek Skipperling and the Dakota Skipper, have crashed. More indicators of something significantly wrong.

I think that things like the Legacy Tax and The Nature Conservancy are great, especially when they keep conservation land on the tax roles, but a big chunk of financial support for grassland conservation will continue to come through hunting licenses and from hunting groups.

I work closely with an avid hunter and neighbor whose son Loren lately bragged about how he was bitten by a wild goose his dad had shot but he retrieved. It obviously wasn’t totally dead, but he was tough and boasts: “It was almost as big as I am.” He talks about his stitches from another escapade and accepts the idea when told that he is dangerous. When many kids are inside watching TV, Loren is out playing on big round hay bales, dreaming up forts, and basically living on the edge. The next time he comes over and helps me trap pocket gophers maybe we should go over to the east side of my place. I saw a dead deer over there and was wondering if one of these nice days, he and I shouldn’t take a sack lunch over and see what it died of. I could teach him about organs and muscles.

But let’s wait until it has gotten refrigerated a bit more.