Friday, February 15, 2019

One Size Fits All, or No Size Fits Any

As the handful of folks who regularly read my Foothill Agrarian blog will know, I occasionally write about our use of nonlethal livestock protection tools and our attempts to coexist with wildlife. You'll probably remember that I've written that our commitment to these tools is both philosophical and practical. Philosophically, we value coexistence and feel that our use of these tools protects both our sheep and the surrounding wildlife (including predators). Practically, we can't be with our sheep 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to protect them. We have to rely on deterrents (primarily livestock guardian dogs and electro-net fencing) to keep our sheep safe. I hope I've also conveyed that these tools work in our system and in our environment - in other words, they are VERY site- and operation-specific. One size (or set of livestock protection tools) does not fit all operations.

Despite this fact - despite the reality that livestock protection tools must fit both the environment and the operation to be successful - many of the non-ranching organizations and individuals who advocate for their use imply that one size will in fact fit all. Ranchers who don't use a particular tool are just obstinate (or lazy, or too rigid, or too tradition-bound - I've heard all of these terms). Some of this stems from the label, I suspect - these "tools" are actually complex biological and behavioral relationships. They are not a "tool" that anyone can pick up and use successfully on the first try; rather, they require site-specific and intimate knowledge of the environment, the predators, and the production system.

Because I've been vocal about our use of livestock guardian dogs and other nonlethal tools, I find that we are sometimes held up as an example of how these "tools" can be successful. And I do try to share what we've learned about these tools in our specific operation with other producers. However, many times the second part of our story (the part where I say, "in our environment and management system") is missed. Some who hold us up as an example say, in effect, "See?! It works for Dan - it will work for you, too." I fear this oversimplification sometimes drives producers away from considering these tools in their own operations.

But I also find that there is an equally frustrating oversimplification within the ranching community at times. There are those ranchers who will say, in effect, "these tools don't work - they're a waste of time." Rather than saying one size fits all, these folks are saying, "no size fits anyone." At a very personal level, these tools probably won't work for someone who's paradigm suggests that nonlethal tools too costly or inherently ineffective. However, these fellow ranchers will sometimes question the motives of those who advocate for these tools (and by extension, those of us who use them) - we're naïve, we're not "real" ranchers, we're hacks for predator advocates. What bothers me most, I suppose, is that some of these folks object to any efforts to share information about these tools within the larger ranching community.

I suppose in some ways I feel caught in the middle of this contentious issue.These tools have worked (most of the time) for me. I've tried to be open and honest about their costs, and about those times when they've failed. I've tried to acknowledge the complexity of our system and our environment. Indeed, I'm conducting research to try to learn more about the mechanisms through which these "tools" keep our sheep alive. Maybe I want it both ways! Maybe I want those who hold our operation up as an example of coexistence to understand that what works for us may not work everywhere. Perhaps I want those who say these tools won't work for anyone to acknowledge that they can work for some operations in some situations. Maybe what I'm really saying is, "There are enough sizes to fit most of us."

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