Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Researchers test nonlethal tools to protect livestock from predators

Tim Hearden
Capital Press
Courtesy of UC RegentsA sheep lounges in the grass at the University of California's Hopland Research and Extension Center in Hopland, Calif. The center is testing nonlethal ways to prevent predatory wildlife from attacking lambs. 
The University of California's research station in Hopland, Calif., is making more use of nonlethal methods to ward off coyotes, mountain lions and other wildlife that try to prey on newborn lambs.

HOPLAND, Calif. — Researchers are testing nonlethal ways to ward off the coyotes, mountain lions, bears and other wildlife that prey on newborn lambs during the winter.

The University of California’s Hopland Research and Extension Center maintains a flock of about 500 sheep for shearing workshops and research projects, and winter is lambing season. In some years, the center has lost as many as 15 percent of its lambs to predators.

The center is now enduring its first winter under a new policy of minimizing the killing of coyotes and other wildlife, opting instead to use such tools as guard dogs, fencing, pasture rotation and motion-sensor lights to deter carnivores.

The practices seemed to work last spring and summer, as the center saw decreases in both the number of sheep killed by predators and the number of coyotes taken, director Kimberly Rodrigues said. But this winter is the big test, she said. “It’s a really important time for the university to do this kind of research and to say what’s economically reasonable and feasible,” said Rodrigues, a forest resources and land-use expert who took over at the center two years ago. “First and foremost, I have to make sure the team here has a viable flock of sheep.”

The center — a one-time sheep ranch that the UC purchased in the early 1950s — will serve as a laboratory in the next few years for UC-Berkeley wildlife ecology professor Justin Brashares and others to study how the wildlife population interacts with livestock.
The researchers will use GPS collars on prey and predator species to gather detailed information, and the center will also test the fencing that sheep producers have installed to protect their flocks, Rodrigues explained.

Gaining knowledge of how to ward off predators could be crucial as ranchers in California worry about the arrival of gray wolves, which have state and federal endangered-species protections and cannot legally be killed. The state is taking comments on a wolf management plan that includes a protocol for livestock producers that recommends many of the same measures that Hopland is taking against other predators.

Rodrigues will lead an all-day workshop for ranchers Feb. 3 in McArthur, Calif., to discuss nonlethal tools for dealing with wolves and other large predators. The 8:15 a.m. workshop will be held at the Inter-Mountain Fair and Event Center, 44218 A St. Rodrigues cautions that wolves “are a whole other animal” than other predators and “strategies are going to have to be a lot more aggressive.”

“Coyotes tend to be more cowardly, so scare tactics work for them,” she said, adding that researchers are “trying to figure out” the most effective nonlethal deterrents for wolves.

However, even the killing of coyotes and other predators is becoming more controversial, and producers would have to kill 75 percent of the coyote population to impact their threat, Rodrigues said. “Even if we did have that level of control, it’s not viable and that’s not sustainable,” she said. “It’s been really good to see the difference and the increase of survival and growth (of lambs using nonlethal means to protect them). The telling time is coming now as we put the new baby lambs out on the bigger pastures.

“It’s a risk and I acknowledge that,” she said, “but it’s a risk I think we have to take because I think we have an obligation to help the livestock producers … This coexistence is going to be really important.”