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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Predator-Friendly Wool

Air Date: Week of

Ever since sheep were imported and raised in this country, ranchers have killed coyotes and wolves. Producer Bob Reha reports on a recent compromise whereby some man, lamb, and canine are living in greater harmony.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the west, it's not uncommon to see bumper stickers urging people to eat more lamb because the coyotes can't be wrong. And ranchers have long dealt with coyotes and other predators in the classic western style.

(A gun is shot)

CURWOOD: Most ranchers say killing predators is necessary, but the practice upset some consumers who call for a boycott of wool products. For the past 3 years, though, a small group of wool producers has been protecting their flocks with non-lethal methods. As producer Bob Reha explains, it's an attempt to lure back green consumers in an increasingly competitive market.

REHA: Four years ago Congress repealed the law that imposed tariffs on foreign wool imported to the United States, and since 1995 when the tariffs ended, US wool producers have struggled to compete against subsidized foreign producers. Meanwhile, old problems, such as coyotes and other predators, remains a constant. The situation has prompted some ranchers to take a new look at how they do business. Dude Tyler is one of the founders of Predator-Friendly Wool, a small group of ranchers that use non-lethal methods to protect their flocks.

TYLER: We have a very large segment of the American consumer telling us there is a problem in our production methods, and we'd better correct it or they're not going to come to our store.

REHA: To become a predator-friendly producer, a rancher must sign a contract promising not to use any lethal control. Dude Tyler says it can be difficult making the transition to non-lethal protection of your flock.

TYLER: I must say, from a personal standpoint it's pretty darn hard to see coyote in the middle of your flock of sheep and not do something about it.

(Fingers on a computer keyboard)

REHA: However, research by wildlife ecologist Bob Crabtree suggests that doing nothing may actually be beneficial. Mr. Crabtree has spent the last 13 years studying all aspects of coyotes' lives in Yellowstone National Park and eastern Washington. Bob Crabtree serves as Predator-Friendly's science advisor, and says ranchers who kill predators overlook an important fact of life: competition for food. Sheep, coyotes, and rodents share the same pasture. If too much of that grass is eaten, the rodents will disappear. If that happens, the predators turn to the sheep for a square meal. What's more, says Bob Crabtree, with lethal control ranchers only get a short reprieve from predation: 6 to 12 months. But if non-lethal methods are used, the relief could last from 5 to 10 years.

CRABTREE: And it sounds counter-intuitive, you know, if you kill adult coyotes that you're not alleviating the problem. But the problem is, coyotes are social, and they pass this right on to other members of the pack and often the next night there's another coyote to take its place. So there's immigration into the area, and there's immediate filling in the vacancy. So you'd think that if you kill a bunch of coyotes that there's going to be fewer and less lambs are going to be killed, but that's not the case.

REHA: What works best, says Mr. Crabtree, are guard animals. He says dogs, llamas, and donkeys make more sense biologically, although they will not eliminate the predator problem. Bob Crabtree says there is no better deterrent for a territorial coyote than another big dog that will establish his own territory and defend it from predators. But Federal animal damage control agents disagree. Larry Handegaurd is director of the Montana Office of the ADC, a Federal program that assists ranchers and farmers with control of wildlife that damage crops or prey on livestock. Larry Handegaurd says he also uses non-lethal methods as a tool. But he adds those efforts must be supplemented with lethal controls or ranchers' losses will increase.

HANDEGAURD: Sheep producers still have anywhere from probably 3 to 5% loss, some higher, but some research that was done several years ago show that their losses could be as high as 20, 30% without control, and that was a documented study. Thirty percent, I don't think many sheep producers could stay in business at 30%.

REHA: Mr. Handegaurd contends that Crabtree's research has been done only in controlled environments like Yellowstone National Park. Bob Crabtree believes the problem is that ADC has not done any research on how natural coyote populations work, or the effect of lethal control on those populations.

WEED: Although relatively new in this country, people have been using guard animals for a long time in Eastern Europe. People started using guard dogs centuries ago, and...

REHA: But while the debate continues over which approach is more effective, producers of Predator-Friendly Wool like Becky Weed of Belgrade, Montana, are seeing results. Becky Weed uses a llama to guard her flock of 150 sheep. She's quick to point out that hers is a small operation, but it's been successful. She hasn't lost a single lamb to predators since she started using the llama 2 years ago. Becky Weed is one of 6 predator-friendly producers who market their wool together. In a market where raw wool prices fluctuate from 40 cents to $1.50 a pound, the predator-friendly producers are doing well.

WEED: This year, the growers are getting $2 a pound for their raw wool, which is a lot better than what the conventional ag market price this year is. Some of the locals haven't even sold their wool yet because the market is so soft.

REHA: Predator-friendly wool is made into hats and sweaters. Each has a tag attached guaranteeing that the wool used to make the garment is predator-friendly. Becky Weed says producers in the program have been the subject of ridicule and peer pressure from within the industry. Some growers in the program have received threatening phone calls. Becky Weed believes it's because producers are frustrated and a new approach to doing business makes an easy target.

WEED: The predator control issue is an incredibly emotional issue, and sometimes it seems disproportionately emotional to the magnitude of the real issue. And it's a lot easier to fit a coyote in our rifle sights than it is to try to digest Chinese economic forces and drought in Australia and the marketing savvy of the hog and poultry and beef industries and all these other factors which have made it tough for the lamb and wool people to do well in the last few decades.

REHA: Since 1993, 16,000 sheep producers in the US have gone out of business. Members of the Predator-Friendly Wool project say as wool prices continue to fluctuate, methods that will increase profits must be considered. The time has come to question the old ways of doing business and find ways to increase profits. Predator-Friendly members don't pretend what they're doing is easy or a quick fix. But they are encouraged by the success they're having so far. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Reha in Billings, Montana.



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