I've been reading, writing and thinking about the positive relationship between raising sheep and conserving carnivores a great deal lately. Admittedly, my sheep-ranching friends will likely think this heretical - how can sheep-raising be compatible with conserving predators? Similarly, I know that some of you who read this will question whether ranching as a land use can help preserve predator habitat. I hope you'll all hear me out!
By way of explanation, I've been doing research for several papers I'm working on as part my master's degree in integrated resource management (online at Colorado State University). One of my professors, Jacey Cerdy, pointed me toward a book entitled Monster of God by David Quammen (which I just finished). The book examines humans' cultural relationship with large predators. I've also been reading a variety of scholarly papers addressing the subject. Rangeland livestock (like cattle, sheep and goats), it seems, share habitats with apex predators all over the globe. While this often results in conflict, it can also result in opportunities for coexistence - and even mutual dependence.
Some research suggests that profitable ranching may be the best option for keeping critical ecosystems from being permanently fragmented or destroyed by development (Rashford, Grant and Strauch, 2008). Others take this a step further. David Quammen writes that the cultural relationship between shepherds (and by extension, cattle grazers) and large predators is crucial to the preservation of both:
“Shepherds, as I’ve learned, have a relationship with these animals [European brown bears] that’s more intimate, more mutual, than you can get through the scope of a Holland & Holland .375 as you stand on a high seat, sighting down. They share habitat with bears. They have reason to fear them. To detest them…. They have their own, old-fashioned means of coping. They measure bears in a dimension deeper than deutschemarks and CIC points. Maybe that relationship itself, not just Romania’s population of Ursus arctos, is something too valuable to lose.”As I consider my own experience as a shepherd, as a ranching advocate, and as a student of these issues, I can't help but see them as related.
I'm under no illusion that our small sheep operation is a fundamental economic driver in western Placer County (where we live). 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.
Coexistence is complicated. Coexistence doesn't mean I like losing sheep to coyotes or mountain lions. It doesn't mean that I wouldn't protect my flock with lethal force if I came upon a coyote or a mountain lion attacking my sheep. My relationship with these predators, though, 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 try and coexist - consequences which might (occasionally) include dead lambs or injured sheep. I've got skin in the game, so to speak. Like the hunters that Quammen references in the above quote, those who support predator-advocacy organizations don't have the same depth of relationship with these predators as those of us who directly coexist with them. Another article I've read recently puts it this way: “As people become more urbanized, they seem to become more positive toward wildlife; of course, they also become more insulated from the problems of living with wildlife.” (from "The Future of Coexistence" by Woodroffe, Thirgood and Rabinowitz in People and Wildlife: Conflict or Coexistence). The authors continue, "...the immediate costs of living with wildlife are (or are perceived to be) borne by the rural population."
Even in a state like California, where publicly owned land accounts for more than half of our land base, privately owned land is critical for wildlife habitat. Many species of wildlife - including, probably, the largest carnivores - continue to exist (at least in part) because some of this private land is used for grazing livestock.
So while I worry about the safety of my sheep - especially since we may have gray wolves in our region in the next decade - I also know that my business relies on the same "wild" landscapes that provide homes for these predators. In some ways, I think, our mutual continued existence depends on one another.