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Predator control: old fight rekindles

Coyotes and eagles, in different ways symbols of the American frontier, remain central characters in a renewed struggle between ranchers and conservationists to protect wildlife and livestock in the US West.

New programs are under way to keep these predatory animals from killing sheep , goats, and calves, a costly problem for many ranchers. Natural predators destroy 1 million sheep annually in the US, or 10 percent of the total flock, claims the National Wool Growers Association, a trade group.

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The US Fish and Wildlife Service is trapping live golden eagles, not to be confused with the bald eagle, in central Texas and relocating them where they can do no harm. Eagle trapping began in Montana several years ago, and so far the effort is gaining support from both conservationists and ranchers in Texas. Trapping will soon begin in New Mexico as well.

However, a new Fish and Wildlife Service policy regarding coyotes has produced a sharp split. Those eager to protect wildlife applaud the approach, but ranchers claim it will cause their livestock losses to grow substantially.

Coyotes are a far more serious threat to ranch animals than eagles. While the birds are considered a problem in only a few states -- principally Texas, New Mexico, and Montana -- the adaptable coyote troubles ranchers in some 17 Western states, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Coyotes are increasing their numbers in some Eastern and Midwestern states as well.

The new federal policy emphasizes "corrective" rather than "preventive" control of coyotes. That means Fish and Wildlife agents will help ranchers only after lifestock losses have been confirmed, as opposed to hunting and killing coyotes to prevent their preying on ranch animals in the first place.

The federal government is ending research on compound 1080, a controversial poison that was banned in 1972 but has been studied since then for possible use in coyote control. One application of 1080 that had been studied is its use in sheep collars. The poison would be contained in little pouches that puncture in the coyotes mouth when the sheep is attacked.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will also end the practice of "denning," where whole litters of coyote pups are killed in dens.

"We're trying to find nonlethal methods of dealing with the problem," explained a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service.While traps, shooting coyotes from helicopters, and other traditional methods of control will continue , new emphasis will be placed on other ways to discourage coyote predation.

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Such techniques might include lacing sheep carcasses with lithium chloride so that when the meat is injested by a coyote there is a strong negative physical reaction, causing the coyote to avoid sheep meat thereafter. Some researchers are also working with the komondor (a large breed of sheepdog) to see if it can effectively protect lambs by scaring off coyotes.

"There are some very promising techniques for nonlethal control," asserts John Grandy, executive vice-president of the Defenders of Wildlife in Washington.

While conceding that coyotes pose a real problem for some ranchers, Mr. Grandy says 45 to 50 percent of the nation's sheep ranchers are not harassed by coyotes. "That is why we need to be selective" in where and how coyotes are controlled, he adds.

The loss of livestock to natural predators is getting worse in Texas, said Bill Sims, executive director of the Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers Association. Predators were responsible for 25 percent of the sheep lost in 1967, but accounted for 58 percent of the losses in 1978, he reported.

The new federal policy dealing with coyotes "runs directly against what we need," claimed Mr. Sims.


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