Researchers are only just starting to understand the critical role of native U.S. predator species in the functioning of ecosystems. A recent study by Oregon State University, for example, found that large predators such as coyotes, bears, wolves and mountain lions help to maintain native plant communities by keeping large herbivore populations in check, contributing to the health of forests, streams, fisheries and other wildlife.
Yet, throughout the history of U.S. livestock production, predators have been pursued and eradicated from their native habitat with a vengeance. Although the growing recognition of the damage that human activity is inflicting on the environment has brought conservation efforts to the fore over recent decades, “conservation” and “ranching” have been regarded as two very separate and incompatible objectives. The political solution has generally been to set aside dedicated conservation areas, where the predators are allowed—and expected—to remain. The problem is that predators don’t recognize the artificial boundaries created by our cognitive separation between food production and nature conservation, so conflict frequently arises wherever predator and ranch inevitably meet again. Sadly, a “shoot, shovel and shut up” approach is still the norm when it comes to predator management on many farms and ranches across North America.
Livestock losses from predators can sometimes have a devastating economic and emotional impact on producers, as well as on livestock stress and welfare. However, many producers find that using lethal force in an attempt to eliminate the predator threat from their land rarely succeeds in the long term. Even if they do manage to eradicate the local population of coyotes, for example, a new pack or breeding pair will quickly move into the vacuum. There is also significant evidence to suggest that attempts to control coyotes by lethal means will actually encourage them to breed, as this is their biological response to factors that threaten their population.
Over recent years, a growing movement among some agricultural producers is to coexist with wildlife, including predators, rather than eliminate them. Such means of coexistence have included the use of livestock guardian animals, electric fencing, fladry, rotational grazing, and mechanical deterrents. These grassroot efforts across the United States and Canada have culminated in the launch earlier this year of a new certification program to assess and reward producers who are coexisting with wildlife, including some important native predator species.
Wildlife Friendly Farms and Ranches
The Certified Wildlife Friendly™ and Predator Friendly® production standards are the result of a three-year partnership project among AWI’s Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) program, Predator Friendly, and the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (see box on page 17). The new standards were developed to meet the growing consumer demand for food and other products from farms and ranches that are committed to coexisting with native species. As the name suggests, Predator Friendly® standards focus on the protection of native predators; the Certified Wildlife Friendly™ standards also incorporate predator protection, but the standards include additional measures to protect a broader spectrum of wildlife. Nevertheless, the underlying philosophy of both standards is to use market forces to create positive outcomes for threatened species and the producers who share their habitats.
So how does the new program work in practice? Participating producers must undergo an annual third-party audit, carried out by an AWA auditor, to demonstrate compliance with strict standards on wildlife conservation and predator coexistence. Participating producers must show that they are maintaining and enhancing wildlife habitat on their farms and ranches, and that they are employing a mix of proactive practices and careful observation to allow wildlife and livestock to coexist, and are able to quickly adapt their management practices in response to changing conditions.
Producers who pass the audit can then market their products—including wool, meat, eggs, honey, leather goods, soap, and more—using the Certified Wildlife Friendly™ or Predator Friendly® logos, demonstrating their dedication and commitment to practical wildlife conservation and coexistence. Using this approach, the program seeks to encourage producers to help protect some of the most important habitats and species across the United States, while opening up new business opportunities for sustainable farms and ranches.
Conservation in Practice
The comprehensive Certified Wildlife Friendly™ and Predator Friendly® standards cover a number of areas relating to wildlife and predator conservation, from the provision and preservation of wildlife habitat and corridors on the farm or ranch, to the kinds of non-lethal strategies that producers must adopt. But the underlying principle is that by adopting mixes of non-lethal strategies and common-sense management techniques, producers can maintain wildlife habitats as well as keep livestock safe and wildlife alive without resorting to lethal control measures. The measures adopted by producers range from ordinary to ingenious.
Knowledge is key
It may sound obvious, but a basic knowledge and understanding of the wildlife on and around the farm or ranch is fundamental and must serve as the primary tool to minimize the potential for conflict with wildlife. Producers are encouraged to educate themselves and continually observe their farm or ranch to recognize the changing potential for conflict with wildlife. An understanding of the habits and lifecycle of the predator species in question will help to alert the farmer or rancher to periods of the day—or year—when the threat of predation is likely to be highest. Prudent practices such as swiftly disposing of livestock carcasses and reducing and eliminating other attractant sources are also essential.
Adaptive grazing and feeding
An awareness and knowledge of predator activities can help producers schedule their grazing to take advantage of seasonal lulls in predation pressure—for example, by ensuring that young stock are not grazed near active dens. While producers are expected to maintain uncultivated areas and wildlife habitats on their farms and ranches to support predator-prey ecosystems, these areas offer predators good cover and an easy means of retreat; placing vulnerable animals near such areas will clearly present more of a risk. As many predators are nocturnal hunters, gathering and moving animals to a more secure location at night—such as a poultry house or fenced corral—can be an option for effective protection.
Predators can quickly become comfortable with the routine of a farm, and harassment may be necessary to prevent them from becoming acclimatized to livestock or home ranch areas—and from learning when it is “safe” to approach because humans are not around. Making frequent and unpredictable patrols in pasture, varying approaches to pastures, changing where and when people are present, and employing differing means of transportation can all help to avoid predictability.
Simple strategies such as grazing larger and smaller livestock species together can help to deter unwanted predators. The presence of cattle with sheep, or pigs with poultry, for example, can act as a significant deterrent, as the larger animals are seen as a greater threat. Some livestock species are also more alert than others and will warn their companion species of a potential threat.
Barriers and mechanical deterrents
Another widely used strategy is to use barriers such as electric fencing to protect small areas of land. This approach is particularly useful for poultry. In certain conditions, fladry is a low-tech option for keeping species such as wolves away from domestic livestock. It involves fitting a line of rope on the top of a fence and suspending strips of fabric or colored flags that flap in a breeze and can be highly effective, although generally for short periods and small areas. Scientists (some with the help of grants via AWI’s Christine Stevens Wildlife Award program) are also working to test the efficacy of “biofencing”—scent barriers that may discourage predators from crossing over into areas where livestock are present (see Spring 2012 AWI Quarterly).
More high-tech solutions might involve mechanical deterrents, such as motion-sensitive alarms, which use lights and noise to discourage predators. Trials have been carried out using radio-activated guard boxes, which sense individual wolves who have previously been fitted with radio tracking collars. Lights and noise scare off the collared wolf—and the wolf’s pack.
Timing of birthing and hatching
For all livestock species, birthing is a highly vulnerable period. In the wild as well as on farms and ranches, newborn and young animals are often the prime target for predators. However, when native prey is abundant and/or domestic animals are hard to access, predators are less likely to strike. Sometimes it is possible to alter calving, lambing, kidding, farrowing and/or poultry hatching schedules, so as to minimize predation risk by avoiding having young stock on the land at times of the year when predators will be most active—or when natural prey species are less available. Where this is impractical, an alternative is to ensure that birthing is carried out in dedicated protected areas, temporarily moving animals to smaller, well-fenced pastures or fenced lots or sheds to secure stock during this highly vulnerable time.
Using livestock guardians
Perhaps the most well-known non-lethal strategy for managing predator threats is the guardian dog. Although dogs have been used for centuries to protect livestock from predators in Europe and Asia, they remain underutilized in the United States, although awareness of their advantages is growing rapidly. The most common breeds in the United States include the Great Pyrenees, Anatolian Shepherds, Akbash and Maremma. Each dog breed has different characteristics, making them suitable for different roles, landscapes and predator threats. (A Christine Stevens Wildlife Award helped fund a successful demonstration of Great Pyrenees guard dog efficacy in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; see Summer 2011 AWI Quarterly.) But the role of guardian is not limited to dogs: llamas and donkeys are often used, as well, where their size and presence can be an effective deterrent to certain predator species.
Predation is a serious issue for livestock farms and ranches in many parts of the country, and the issue of “predator control” evokes strong emotions among the farming and ranching community and the general public alike. There is no “one-size-fits-all” guaranteed solution to living with wildlife. Nevertheless, producers who (1) take steps to make coexistence an integral part of their farm or ranch management, (2) gain an understanding of the wildlife surrounding their operations, and (3) are willing to vary their practices to suit the changing conditions can address predation threats and significantly reduce livestock losses without resorting to lethal methods or destroying important habitats. With the ever-increasing public concern about the plight of native wildlife and natural habitats, the Certified Wildlife Friendly™ and Predator Friendly® production standards will not only show that it is possible to farm and ranch without killing important wildlife, but will provide market opportunities for those producers who choose to do so.
The Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN) is a global community dedicated to the development and marketing of products that conserve threatened wildlife while contributing to the economic vitality of rural communities. An example of a WFEN member outside the United States is the Elephant Pepper Development Trust, which trains African farmers to plant chili crops as deterrents around their main cash crops rather than injuring or killing elephants. This simple approach helps reduce incidents in which elephants raid crops. Elephant Pepper then manufactures chili products using the chilies grown by these farmers. For more info, see www.wildlifefriendly.org.
Predator Friendly® initially grew out of a conversation between a sheep rancher and a conservationist, who recognized the keystone role of native predators as well as the role farms can play in conservation. The program developed in the early 1990s as a way to let consumers know about and support farms and ranches practicing predator protection in North America. In 2012, Predator Friendly became part of the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network. For more info, see www.predatorfriendly.org.