Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Cost of Coexistence

If you've read my blog previously, you probably know that we try to use nonlethal livestock protection tools in our sheep operation. You probably also know that I'm studying the interactions between livestock guardian dogs and wildlife in our foothill environment. Using game cameras set up around the perimeter of our sheep paddocks, I'm trying to document the kinds of wildlife (especially predators) that our dogs might encounter. Using self-built GPS collars, I'm also tracking the positions of the dogs in relationship to the animals captured in the cameras. In the coming weeks, I'm hoping to add a digital, voice-activated audio recorder to this set up - I know the dogs are barking in response to predators, but I'd like to know if they differentiate between threatening and non-threatening wildlife.

All of this is a long-winded introduction to an idea that's been percolating in my sheepherder/researcher brain. Some time ago I posted on social media several of the more interesting trail camera photos (we "caught" coyotes, raccoons, skunks and a red tail hawk). A friend asked me if the coyote was still living. I had to admit that I'm not a very good shot - beyond that, I described my research project, as well as the fact that the sheep are currently in a location that makes lethal control difficult. His response (as much tongue-in-cheek as mine had been) was, "Lucky coyote."

But as I thought more about our humorous exchange, I began to realize that maybe this particular coyote was lucky. Our livestock guardian dogs protect our sheep, certainly; they also protect the predators in our environment. Based on my observations (and the photos I'm getting with the trail cameras), we have predators like coyotes and foxes (I have yet to get a photo of a mountain lion or black bear, but I suspect we have these, too) in close proximity to our sheep. And yet because of the dogs and electric fences, these carnivores are not eating lamb or mutton. Because of our dogs and electric fences, we're avoiding conflicts with wildlife.

Obviously, our society values wildlife. Californians have voted to protect mountain lions from hunting. Gray wolves, who appear to be expanding their range in the Sierra, are protected by the state and federal endangered species acts. Few of us, however, must live directly with the consequences of this protection. While I'll absolutely admit that I get a thrill whenever I see wildlife (including predators), I'll also admit to feeling a deep sense of responsibility to the sheep I raise. My sheep depend upon me for protection. To a certain extent, these predators do as well.

I'm not unique among my sheep-raising colleagues in the foothills (or indeed, throughout the West). Many of us use livestock guardian dogs or other guardian animals. Most of us (myself included) use guardian animals to avoid the economic impacts of predation - after all, every lamb killed by a coyote represents a financial loss. Even ranchers who use lethal control often use nonlethal methods as well. Like most ranchers, I raise sheep both as a business and as an avocation - I love working outdoors with livestock. I love grazing my sheep on foothill rangeland. For me to be able to continue to do what I love (even on a part-time basis), the sheep business has to turn a profit.

Consequently, my decisions about how to protect my sheep from predators are based largely on economics. One of the challenges in analyzing livestock protection tools from an economic perspective is to compare the costs with the benefits. The cost side of this equation is easy. I know that each livestock guardian dog costs me $600-800 per year in dog food and veterinary care. I know that about half of the puppies we start won't end up working in our system. I know that I'll spend about $1,500 on purchasing and raising a puppy to working age (around two years old). And I know that I'll hopefully get 6-8 years of service from a puppy that makes the transition to working adult.

What I don't know - what I can't possibly know - is how many lambs a particular dog saves from predation each year. I can't measure something that doesn't happen. I sleep better at night knowing my sheep are protected by a vigilant dog; I haven't been able to attach a specific dollar figure to my peace of mind.

As I think about the wildlife we're protecting by using dogs, the economic analysis is similarly challenging. What is a coyote or mountain lion worth to someone who values these animals in the environment?

In academic terms, I suppose we are providing an ecosystem service by using livestock guardian dogs. Our use of dogs, by reducing conflict between sheep and predators, protects both. The "lucky" coyote I caught with my game camera gets to live on the ranch we lease because our dogs and our fences keep him from killing sheep. Despite this service, we don't get any more money for our lambs. There is no premium paid for our efforts to coexist. If coexistence is truly important to us all, perhaps there should be.

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