The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently opened the doors of the National Wildlife Research Center to the public to showcase their facility and talk about the research they are doing on predators. Although most of their work is on coyotes, they also rehabilitate and collar bear cubs and capture and collar mountain lions for research.
When it comes to predators, coyotes are the largest predator of both sheep and lambs in Utah. Coyotes kill more sheep than cougars, wolves and bears. In 2017, the wily predator cost sheep producers $2.73 million according to USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service. As far as predators go, the coyote accounted for 40-percent of all sheep losses in the state.
Dr. Julie Young, leader of the predator research station in Millville, said they are doing their best to reduce conflicts and try nonlethal ways to help livestock producers deal with coyotes.
Scientists at the field station study the ecology and behavior of predators in an effort to identify management techniques and strategies, especially nonlethal tools.
Since 1972 researchers at the facility have studied coyotes and other predators in an effort to protect both the livestock and the coyotes.
“We try to find ranchers that will work with us,” Young said. “Once we get a rancher to see what we are doing and they see that we are not trying to interfere with what they are trying to do, they are more likely to accept our efforts.”
She said once they get one rancher to work with them, word spreads and more ranchers help with the research.
Currently, guard dogs seem to be the best solution to protect livestock from coyotes, according to Young.
Guard dogs like the Great Pyrenees and related breeds are generally raised with the sheep as part of the flock. They have little to no human contact and will challenge predators.
Stacy Brummer, a coyote colony specialist at the predator research lab, has worked at the predator research lab for 18 years. She said there are about 100 adult coyotes used for research at the center. They rotate the animals for their experiments so the same animal isn’t used over and over again.
“Coyotes born there never leave the facility, unless a zoo wants to adopt them,” she said. “Some people think we let them into the wild, but we don’t.”
Animals at the research center are vaccinated and cared for like most pets, but they limit human contact to keep them as wild as possible, Brummer said.
“One year, someone broke in and let the animals out of their pens and they just stayed there. They weren’t motivated to leave like the people who let them loose thought they would,” she said. “This is their home and they didn’t want to leave.”
Coyotes seem to survive in the deserts, mountains, and are even able to adapt to cities.
“Coyotes have a skill set that allows them to expand. They are very flexible in their diet, more than other carnivores. They can eat anything from grasshoppers, watermelon, rodents or even a tortoise,” Brummer said. “They are flexible in the time of day they are active and they can shift to avoid human activity.”
She said coyotes are very good at pattern recognition. They learn when and how humans will react to them. As a result, they learn how to either interact with or avoid humans when necessary. They are so adaptable, they can live around humans.
Brummer said coyotes are an interesting animal. Deterrents that work with other animals don’t work on coyotes.
“We’ve tried sterilization techniques that work on other animals, even dogs, and so far those techniques haven’t worked on coyotes,” she said.
Scientists have tried hanging flags to scare coyotes, but after a while they learn the flags won’t hurt them, so they ignore them. They have tried flashing lights, but when the predators find they are in no danger, they ignore them. Young said coyotes continue to try new things.
Some of the new things the center tries come from others at the facility, some come from visiting professors, and some come from the research being done by other colleges and universities.
“It’s an evolving process. We are getting better at what we do,” Brummer said. “We are certainly getting better at our husbandry techniques.”