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Stories from the valley

Anything But Simple

Contributed by Dan Macon

As a sheep rancher, one of the greatest challenges I face is protecting my sheep from predators. Our grazing operations are based on rangeland habitats and irrigated pastures in the Sierra foothills near Auburn. We share this habitat with a variety of predators – including coyotes and mountain lions – that pose a direct threat to our sheep. Conversion of these rangeland and pasture landscapes (to more intensive agriculture or to houses) concentrates the remaining livestock operations (like ours) – and predators – on a shrinking landscape.

From a practical as well as philosophical perspective, we’ve chosen to use nonlethal means of protecting our sheep from predators. Practically speaking, our lethal control options are limited. Mountain lions are protected by ballot initiative – lethal control requires proof that a lion killed our sheep and a depredation permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Recently returned gray wolves are protected by the state and federal endangered species acts – lethal control will not be allowed under any circumstance. I should note that CDFW predicts gray wolves will eventually range as far south as I-80 in the Sierra Nevada. Some research suggests that lethal control of coyotes can actually increase predation on livestock; as new coyotes move into an area to fill the niche created by lethal control, their reproductive rates seem to increase.

Philosophically speaking, we believe in coexistence with these predators. This may be heresy to my fellow sheep ranchers, but I have a grudging respect for wildlife species that can make their living from the same landscape where I try to make part of mine. I’m under no illusion that our small sheep operation is a fundamental economic driver in western Placer County; the little bit of income that my landlords receive in the form of lease payments isn’t enough to offset their costs of owning the land. That said, the fact that ranching exists as a land use AND a business means that grazing land (including the lands we graze) is kept intact – for my sheep and for the predators that live in our environment.

But coexistence is complicated. My relationship with these rangeland predators is far more personal than someone who sends a check to predator protection group, I suspect. I have to live with the consequences of my decision to coexist – consequences that might (occasionally) include dead lambs or injured sheep. I have skin in the game, so to speak. Our coexistence is concrete rather than abstract.

Our method of coexistence is based on the use of a variety of nonlethal predator protection tools. We use livestock guardian dogs, electric fences, frequent pasture rotations, and other husbandry techniques to keep our sheep safe – we call this our “Big Dogs, Hot Fences and Fast Sheep” system. This system works for us in our specific situation; it would not necessarily work for anyone else, which is part of the complexity of this issue.

From the outside, I suppose, this complexity is difficult to understand. We tend to think that a tool that will work for one person ought to work for everyone – most of us know how to use a hammer, for example. But since these are biological tools with intricate ecological relationships, they don’t work in every instance. When you add the diversity of human perspective and ability to the mix (not surprisingly, ranchers are an independent-minded bunch), the use of nonlethal tools is even more complicated. Coexistence is anything but simple.