Living with Coyotes

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Living with Coyotes

Managing Predators Humanely Using Food Aversion Conditioning

By Stuart R. Ellins

A thoughtful, well-argued plea for using humane methods to manage North America’s most adaptable animal predator.



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5.5 x 8.5 | 175 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-71956-9

The coyote may well be North America's most adaptable large predator. While humans have depleted or eliminated most other native predators, the coyote has defied all attempts to exterminate it, simultaneously expanding its range from coast to coast and from wilderness to urban areas. As a result, coyotes are becoming the focus of increasing controversy and emotion for people across the continent— from livestock growers who would like to eradicate coyotes to conservationists who would protect them at any cost.

In this thoughtful, well-argued, and timely book, Stuart Ellins makes the case that lethal methods of coyote management do not work and that people need to adopt a more humane way of coexisting with coyotes. Interweaving scientific data about coyote behavior and natural history with decades of field experience, he shows how endlessly adaptive coyotes are and how attempts to kill them off have only strengthened the species through natural selection. He then explains the process of taste aversion conditioning—which he has successfully employed—to stop coyotes from killing domestic livestock and pets. Writing frankly as an advocate of this effective and humane method of controlling coyotes, he asks, "Why are we mired in the use of archaic, inefficient, unsophisticated, and barbaric methods of wildlife management in this age of reason and high technology? This question must be addressed while there is still a wildlife to manage."

  • Preface
  • Chapter 1. Coyotes in My Pen
  • Chapter 2. Surviving the Onslaught
  • Chapter 3. A Balance of Power
  • Chapter 4. Surplus Killing
  • Chapter 5. An Opportunistic Scavenger: Coyote Feeding Habits
  • Chapter 6. Feeding the Pack: The Development of Dietary Preferences and Aversions
  • Chapter 7. To Eat or Not to Eat? Modification of Dietary Habits
  • Chapter 8. Conditioned Prey Aversions: Will They Work in the Real World?
  • Chapter 9. Predator Management: Sociology, Science, or Politics
  • Chapter 10. Current Status: The Application of Prey Aversion Conditioning
  • References

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Sonja, my second-year graduate student, burst into my office with a panicked expression on her face. "Just got a call from Santos. Heuga lost a bunch of lambs last night. He's on the warpath. He's got guns and wants a trapper. We had better get out there." Thirty minutes later we were speeding down a winding single-lane road into the Antelope Valley in the Southern California high desert in my dust-covered pickup.

In the late seventies, the Antelope Valley was a sparsely populated semiarid region bordered on the south, west, and north by the foothills of the converging San Gabriel and Tehachapi mountain ranges, and on the east by the Mojave Desert. The sandy high desert terrain was covered with sparse vegetation composed mostly of creosote bush scrub and woodlands of scattered eerie Joshua trees with spiny branches upraised to the heavens. With the help of irrigation the valley also produced a sprinkling of vegetable and alfalfa crops and supported small numbers of domestic livestock including sheep, goats, and turkeys. Most of the sheep were trucked into the area in the fall of the year from their summer grazing fields in the nearby mountains and were divided into herds varying in size from hundreds to thousands of animals. They were then trucked or herded from one harvested alfalfa field to another to browse on the remaining stubble. Lambing occurred in the open field throughout the year.

Following the long hot summer, in contrast to the few patches of agricultural green, virtually everything in the high desert looked dirty brown; the dried vegetation and the parched earth blended into a haze of desolation punctuated by ancient lava buttes and rocky outcroppings that served as havens for the coyotes that foraged in the valley. Finding Jean Heuga's herds of sheep was never easy on short notice. From the road, the only appearance of movement was provided by rolling Russian thistle. These tumbleweeds were released from their moorings and blown across the landscape by the irrepressible desert wind. Oscillations in atmospheric pressure resulting from changes in weather systems and daily temperature variations drove the wind through mountain canyons and across the valley floor. Occasionally, a ghostly dust devil, a current of warm air spiraling upward, danced across the bleak terrain, lifting dirt and debris ever skyward. Unfortunately for distant observers, it was nearly impossible to distinguish a herd of slowly grazing dusky white sheep from the drab panorama and the tumbling tumbleweeds, even with binoculars. We attempted to locate Heuga's herds by searching for an ancient water truck or a small, dilapidated trailer home, which served as a residence for a herder, the only readily observable and reliable cues indicating the presence of nearby sheep.

The ride toward the sheep on the dirt road nearest to one of Heuga's herds led to an encampment of several pickup trucks, in addition to the inevitable water truck with an accompanying trough and trailer home. In the middle of the cluster of vehicles was a tightly penned herd of approximately 3,000 ewes and lambs. Sitting on the ground on the shady side of the water truck were four sun-darkened leathery-skinned herders. Most herders in the Antelope Valley were South Americans or Basques from the north of Spain who were imported by woolgrowers on contract to work for several years for meager wages and under deplorable conditions of poverty and loneliness. They spoke little if any English, they were frequently intoxicated, and their only constant companions were their Australian sheepdogs, several of which lay panting in the protective shade under the pickups where they escaped from the direct rays of the blazing Southern California sun.

Upon our arrival Mr. Heuga and John Santos walked toward us. Santos was a field representative for the Los Angeles County Department of Agriculture; he was assigned by the local commissioner of agriculture to assist us in conducting our project. Santos knew the land and he knew the people who made their living off it. He was always friendly and very helpful in assisting us in making contact and negotiating with the local woolgrowers and their herders, but we always suspected that he had little faith in our project and that he resented our being there, as though we were just another case of "city slickers" and "arrogant scientists" who come to the farm lands to tell the people how to manage their problems.

My research in the Antelope Valley began the previous year when I contracted with the commissioner of agriculture of Los Angeles County to apply food aversion conditioning to the local population of coyotes in order to reduce their predation on the sheep herds in the area. The project grew out of previous laboratory and field studies that demonstrated that the palatability of food can be modified by the consequences of eating it. In numerous experiments, John Garcia, a research psychologist at Harvard Medical School, and his colleagues found that if nausea followed consumption of a type of food, subsequent eating of that food would be avoided because the food now tasted bad. In research with coyotes, Carl Gustavson, one of John's students at the University of Utah, further demonstrated that this taste aversion learning would extend to other qualities of the food, such as its odor. Thus, after eating a sheep carcass that had been adulterated with the nontoxic but nausea-producing emetic lithium chloride, a coyote should avoid eating sheep in the future because of the disgusting taste of the meat and should avoid killing live sheep because of their offensive odor. Because coyotes are omnivorous scavengers, a food-averted coyote would be likely to abandon sheep as a food source altogether in favor of available tastier meals.

Heuga was obviously upset. Coyotes had come the previous night and jumped the fence into the pen. Nobody knew how many. According to Heuga, the havoc that resulted made it appear that at least three or four intruders had harassed the terrified sheep. By the time the sleeping men had awakened and were able to get to their pickups and turn on the headlights to illuminate the pen, the marauders had departed and the sheep were milling about in an uneasy calm. Heuga counted one lamb dead in the pen, one lamb that was severely injured and had to be destroyed, and three lambs that were missing. We trusted his figures because, of the woolgrowers in our project, the only one who appeared to keep accurate records of the numbers of ewes and lambs in his herds was Jean Heuga. He was special to us because he was uniquely competent as a businessman, he cared about his sheep, and he was genuinely interested in giving us a chance to reduce his losses. Although he agonized over the decision, because of his concern that his sheep would be losing the only protection that he felt he could rely on, he ultimately agreed to suspend the government-sponsored trapping program and to stop shooting coyotes while we attempted to avert the predators to his livestock by baiting the surrounding desert with nausea-producing sheep carcasses. It now appeared that he had made a mistake, and that we were to blame for the attack on his livestock.

Heuga respected coyotes and their right to survive in their niche. He understood their function in the natural order of life in the wild and their contribution to the agricultural community by helping to keep in check the populations of rodents and other vermin that would otherwise plunder its crops, contaminate its feed, and undermine its fields, but he also claimed a right to the land and the freedom to pursue his trade without persecution. He was willing to coexist with coyotes, his major nemesis, but not to compete with them. It was difficult enough for a sheep rancher to earn a living while contending with fluctuating market prices for wool and lamb, and with illness and death in his herds due to accidents, disease, extreme weather conditions, birth complications, inadequate mothering, and depredations by other predators such as plundering packs of feral dogs and ravens that would peck the eyes out of defenseless lambs. He was especially appalled at the tactics of coyotes and would tremble with rage as he described his observations of abductors carrying off bleating lambs, of tearing and eating prey that were still alive, and of what appeared to be wanton attacks of terrorizing and killing, often without eating.

Heuga's feelings about predator management were unlike those of most other livestock growers in that he was usually less rabid in his disdain for predators and more reasonable in his acceptance of alternative methods of coyote control. Even after the carnage of the previous night, he eventually calmed down and agreed to allow us to continue our project for at least a few more weeks until we could acquire sufficient data to determine if our food aversion procedure was at all effective in reducing his losses.

Actually, our project in the Antelope Valley continued for two more years, and the struggle continues to this day throughout much of the United States. Predator management has emerged as a highly controversial and emotion-laden contemporary issue, the extreme camps consisting of those livestock growers who view all predators as vermin that are a constant threat to their economic well-being, and conservationists who advocate the protection of predators at all costs as important components in the balance of nature. With the demise of many other predators in North America, and essentially all other large predators in the United States, the outcome of this controversy now weighs heavily on the survival of the coyote. The challenge is to devise management procedures that can adequately protect the agricultural community from the economic losses caused by free-ranging coyotes, while at the same time creating conditions that will ensure the future of this icon of American independence and adaptability.

Stuart R. Ellins is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State University, San Bernardino.

"By carefully blending anecdotes, personal stories, personal interviews, nice prose, and 'hard' scientific data, Ellins presents a comprehensive picture of coyotes and shows how they've been maligned and also revered historically and nowadays. . . . an important contribution to the field . . ."

—Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado, Boulder, editor of Coyotes: Biology, Behavior, and Management and The Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior