Fighting for survival

Casper–Star Tribune — Wyoming

By Brodie Farquhar

Bruce Pheasant has been raising sheep and lambs since 1985 — part of a family tradition that goes back to his grandfather’s sheep operation in 1890.

"This is what I love to do," Pheasant said, referring to the positive side of raising sheep — watching them graze on green grass, warming up a newborn lamb by the stove in the kitchen, bottle-feeding a hungry "bum" lamb and seeing it grow and thrive.

"It gets in your blood," he said.

But the Kaycee–area rancher also knows plenty about the down side of sheep ranching, a business and a lifestyle that is slowly vanishing in the American West and here in Wyoming.

Coyotes and other predators are a constant problem. International competition weighs on the industry’s profitability. Mother Nature can also take a toll: This year, Pheasant lost a third of his flock to a March snowstorm.

That three–day snowstorm dealt a devastating blow to his flock, which had already been sheared and lacked the thick, warm, wool coats that had kept them alive through a Wyoming winter. Pheasant said he found hundreds of his sheep piled up into fence corners or buried beneath multistory snowdrifts. Shelters and even barns failed to provide much protection, as the wind pushed snow inside.

Pheasant said he’s hoping for government help for this weather–related disaster, and is worried about some of his sheep–grower neighbors, who might be forced out of business without federal disaster assistance.

While weather will always be a wild card for Pheasant and other sheep producers, they say the industry in Wyoming is getting a significant boost from the Legislature in the form of a $6 million expansion of the state’s predator control program.

Big losses

Like most other sheep producers in Wyoming, Pheasant deals with stiff losses due to predators — especially coyotes, which are pretty much everywhere. Pheasant takes his flock up to grazing allotments in Bear Trap Meadows in the Bighorn National Forest, where he also has to deal with mountain lions, black bears and, for the past three years, the occasional lone wolf. Eagles — protected by the Endangered Species Act — also prey on lambs, he said.

Pheasant said he has found as many as 50 lambs dead and buried in forest pine needles, left there by a marauding mountain lion. Coyotes are a continual problem, one which used to be controlled by poisoned bait.

It is an article of faith within the sheep industry that compound 1080 (sodium monoflouroacetate), a canid–selective poison, was the most effective and economical weapon against coyotes, until the use of poisonous baits for predator control was banned in 1972. Coyote abundance may have declined by as much as 50 percent in states where 1080 was used extensively. Yet the 1080 era also saw a general decline in national sheep production, notwithstanding a little bump in the late 1950s and 1960s.

John Johnson, who used to have a sheep and wool operation west of Casper, is one of the true believers in the virtues of 1080.

"Bring 1080 back, and this industry would be instantly profitable," he said. Johnson now drives school buses for the Natrona County School District. He believes he was driven out of business by predator losses.

The poison 1080 was used from 1955 to 1972 and again in a state–run program in 1975–77, he said. In the years that 1080 was used, his predator losses were 30–35, ballooning to 400–500 (out of a 3,000–head flock) when 1080 was banned for good.

Johnson has tried just about every other option on predator control, including weekend coyote hunts, denning, aerial gunning and M–44s — spring–loaded cyanide guns.

"You never get on top," he said, because the coyote is always learning and adjusting. If even one coyote den is missed, he said, the predator losses continue.

Johnson said he’s less than optimistic that the state’s predator control efforts n even with the $6 million allocation from the Legislature — can do much to control predation, if 1080 isn’t part of the toolbox.

But longtime Kemmerer sheep rancher Truman Julian said the money will help.

"There’s no doubt these predator funds will enable us to build much more effective predator control programs," he said. "We can spend this money for actual, on–the–ground predator control."

Questionable spending?

Industry groups and taxpayers have funneled $1.6 billion into predator–killing programs between 1939 and 1998, according to a study published in the journal of Conservation Biology by Kim Murray Berger, a research scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Jackson.

That investment did not benefit sheep ranchers, the study found. Berger wrote, "That the decline of the sheep industry has been associated most closely with unfavorable market conditions rather than predation losses casts doubt on the value of continued carnivore control, except perhaps at a very local scale."

In other words, based on 60 years of data, Berger found that lethal predator controls did not shore up a sheep industry that has been battered by unfavorable market conditions. Total spending of more than $1.6 billion has not been able to stave off an 85 percent decline in the sheep industry since its peak of 56.2 million animals in 1942.

The study points to a 141 percent increase in wages, 23 percent decrease in lamb prices, and 82 percent decrease in wool prices during that period.

Factors other than predators have had greater impact on the sheep industry, Berger said. For instance, a 44 percent increase in hay prices between 1966 and 1976 was associated with a 44 percent decrease in sheep numbers.

Two reports released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service in 2005 and 2006 tend to concur with Berger. Most unwanted livestock losses come from disease, weather or birthing problems. Predators — including domestic dogs — killed 0.18 percent of all cattle produced in the United States in 2005, and predators killed less than 3 percent of all sheep produced in the country in 2004.

But Julian said there’s no doubt predators take a heavy toll on sheep operations in Wyoming. He said every tool, from coyote killing to guard dogs, is needed to keep predators at bay and livestock producers in business.

Julian said in past years, coyotes alone have taken upward of 17 percent of his sheep.

"Predators are a serious problem for all producers ... Predator control helps us maintain the future of ag in Wyoming, and it helps keep ranchers from having to sell out (for) subdivisions," Julian said. "It basically affects our whole ability to survive. And that’s what we’re doing — fighting for survival."

Southwest Wyoming bureau reporter Jeff Gearino contributed to this report.