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Coyotes can be controlled
Whidbey residents Ken and Nan Leaman have two big fluffy dogs with a large adopted family they hang out with all day, sleep with at night and with whom they even share meals of grain.
Though they don't speak the same language, so to speak, the sister canines seem happy and comfortable living with sheep, and vice versa.
And luckily for the sheep, the usually mild-mannered Great Pyrenees instinctively and aggressively keep coyotes and other predators away from their flock.
Beyond keeping Great Pyrenees, however, local coyote experts say farmers and hobby farmers on Whidbey Island have a few other options for keeping their livestock safe from the wily predators.
Fred Goodman, supervising wildlife specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has been helping people deal with coyote problems throughout the West for 13 years. A North Whidbey resident, Goodman is usually the person who's called first when a coyote is suspected of killing livestock on the island.
If Goodman determines that coyotes were involved, he can help. He first takes a good look at the livestock owner's set up and offers advice about keeping the animals safe.
"I encourage people to practice good animal husbandry," he said.
That might mean putting up better fencing, bringing animals in at night, keeping pregnant livestock nearer a house, and quickly disposing of dead or stillborn animals.
Goodman also traps coyotes. Because of the state trapping initiative, Goodman uses "soft traps" that catch coyotes live. He then euthanizes them. Or, Goodman hunts coyotes by luring them to him with a number of different predator calls. The calls mimic the sound of a rabbit or other small creatures in distress.
But his services aren't cheap. Since Island County doesn't help finance wildlife services, Goodman charges landowners $165 for an eight-hour day of work. He explained that other counties, in conjunction with the federal government, support agents who deal with wildlife problems countywide.
For people with smaller problems, like coyotes eating cats or dogs, Goodman said he offers "technical assistance," which means advice. He suggests keeping pet food inside, keeping pets in at night and not allowing cats to roam freely.
A cheaper, but more controversial, way to deal with coyote problems is to befriend a coyote hunter.
Coyote hunter gets jobs done
North Whidbey resident Dale Cheney has been hunting coyotes on Whidbey Island for a quarter of a century. He used to trap coyotes and other animals, but reluctantly had to stop when the voter initiative banned most trapping.
As a man who's very aware of the natural world, Cheney said he's seen the problems that unmanaged populations of coyotes can create. He believes the sheer density of coyotes on Whidbey has led to livestock and family pet predation.
Cheney also said unchecked populations of coyotes can lead to overpopulation, with the inevitable decline from distemper, mange and other cruel diseases.
"It's hideous what happens when they aren't controlled," he said.
Cheney said local farmers beg him to hunt coyotes on their lands, which is legal year-round. On a recent outing he shot three coyotes in one day on North and Central Whidbey.
Though he's seen the havoc coyotes can create, Cheney said he appreciates the beauty and intelligence of the animal.
"They're fantastic animals," he said. "You don't have to hate it to hunt it."
'Genetic trigger' maintains population
But people who study coyotes, including Goodman, say the indiscriminate killing of the adaptable animals isn't always the best way to control them.
Goodman said federal and state governments have tried to control or exterminate coyotes with bounties, poisoning and trapping. But today, there are probably more coyotes than ever before.
Sgt. Bill Heinck with Fish and Wildlife said many studies have shown that coyotes have a "genetic trigger" that increases the birth rate when there's any pressure put on them.
"It's very, very hard to influence coyote populations," he said.
Jack Laufer, a Washington state coyote expert, agreed that people have helped create bigger, smarter coyotes.
"By killing the slow, dumb coyotes," he said, "you're producing super coyotes."
While Goodman said there's sometimes no alternative "to removing offending coyotes," he explained that it's best not to kill them if there isn't a problem. The animals have different personalities -- there are "good and bad" coyotes.
Coyotes are territorial and a pair will aggressively defend an area. If certain coyotes in an area feed on voles, for example, and don't go after livestock, they'll keep any livestock-killing coyotes out.
But of all the different methods for livestock owners to deal with coyotes, Goodman agrees with Leaman that the best solution is to get a companion animal to live with and protect sheep, goats or other animals.
Wildlife Services has been encouraging the use of Great Pyrenees dogs for years. In addition, llamas, mules, donkeys and other animals that can kick the heck out of coyotes may be used to protect livestock.
"It's a neutral approach," Leaman said. "You don't have to be for or against coyotes."