Maggie Nutter and her husband were fixing a fence on their ranch in northern Montana when they heard raucous bellowing. They ran up the hill and saw five coyotes amid their grazing cattle. “Three coyotes were teasing a mama, and two were dragging on her calf,” Nutter recalls. Her husband, Kelly Mothershead, shot one of the coyotes, and the rest bolted at the blast.
“We were right there, just on the back side of the hill,” Nutter says. “Coyotes have no fear of humans, and they’ve gotten so thick.”
The fourth-generation rancher is no stranger to run-ins with the wily canids. She grew up in this vast sweep of rolling grasslands just three miles from the Canadian border, where wildlife and livestock easily outnumber humans. Nutter enjoys watching elk stream down the butte behind her house and into the surrounding fields and shallow ravines, called coulees. She’s far less pleased to see coyotes—or evidence that they’ve eaten one of her calves. “What’s left is usually the legs and the head,” she says.
The family keeps calves in pastures close to the house during their first few weeks of life, when they are most vulnerable. Still, the coyotes persist. For the past decade or so, the ranchers have turned to Wildlife Services, an agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for help. In February, just before calving season starts, agents fly over their property and shoot coyotes. Others eventually move in to fill the void, but it buys some time. Nutter says they need just a month or two for the calves to grow big enough to run away and be able to get more help from their mothers.
It’s not in Nutter’s nature, much less her financial interest, to wait idly for a solution to appear. As president and cofounder of the Marias River Livestock Association, which covers four counties, she’s actively working to educate herself and others about the tools available—lethal and nonlethal—to help landowners cope with carnivores. As she sees it, this is her only choice.
One of the options the rancher is now considering is the use of M-44s. These spring-trap devices are filled with sodium cyanide, one of the world’s deadliest poisons, and baited with the alluring (if you’re a coyote) scent of rotting meat. M-44s have long been controversial with conservation groups but made national headlines earlier this year after they injured a teenager and killed a wolf and multiple pet dogs. Wildlife Services typically deploys the devices—some 16,500 a year in up to 16 states—but in Montana anyone with a pesticide applicator license who becomes certified (via a training course approved by the state) can also do so.
Nutter knows plenty of ranchers with M-44s on their land. Her father used them to protect sheep, whose smaller size makes them more susceptible to coyote attacks (she plans to add sheep of her own soon). Rather than wait on the single Wildlife Services agent who covers the sprawling region, Nutter figures setting the traps herself when she sees a problem would be more efficient. And she has five other landowners lined up to take the certification class, too.
But if protected carnivores, such as grizzly bears or gray wolves, take up residence in her area, these traps may be off the table. Listed as endangered in the 1970s, both predator populations are now increasing and reclaiming more of their historical ranges. Numbers for Montana’s gray wolves, which were delisted in the state in 2011, have increased from a handful in 1979 to more than 550 today. Montana landowners can now legally kill wolves that threaten livestock, but they can’t bait them—so M-44s are out. Harming endangered grizzlies, which make their way from mountainous Glacier National Park (100 miles to the west) to the prairie, is also illegal, carrying a fine of up to $15,000 and possible jail time. (Ranchers can legally kill grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—a population the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted this summer—but only if the bears are in the act of attacking livestock.) Last year, two grizzlies killed 13 of Nutter’s neighbor’s sheep in one night. “Bears and wolves haven’t been here in a long, long time,” she says. “I’m not prepared to deal with problems that happened hundreds of years ago.”
Fourteen-year-old Canyon Mansfield was walking with his yellow Lab, Casey, on public land behind his Pocatello, Idaho, home when he came across what looked like a sprinkler protruding from the snow. When he touched the device, put there by Wildlife Services, it spewed a powdery orange substance into his eyes, which he immediately rinsed with snow. Most of the orange cloud, however, traveled downwind into Casey’s face. Canyon watched as his dog went into convulsions and red foam seeped from his mouth. (A reaction between the powder and saliva releases hydrogen cyanide gas, causing seizures, internal bleeding, and lung failure.) By the time the boy returned with his parents, Casey was dead.
Canyon himself suffered debilitating headaches, nausea, vomiting, and numb hands—all signs of cyanide poisoning. “The bombs that were by my home were unmarked, with no flags, and no one was notified of their placement,” Canyon’s father, Mark Mansfield, wrote in a July op-ed in an Idaho journal. “[Wildlife Services] often do not follow their own rules.”
Created more than a century ago under a different name, Wildlife Services is primarily responsible for resolving clashes between wildlife and humans. While the agency has a policy of supporting nonlethal techniques, it has drawn sharp criticism from conservationists, animal rights activists, and politicians for what they say is an overly aggressive reliance on deadly measures.
Wildlife Services shot, poisoned, or trapped more than 2.7 million animals in 2016 alone. Birds were the biggest target, largely culled to protect crops and prevent crashes at airports, and the agency killed some 77,963 coyotes, 16 percent of them by M-44s. Last year the devices were also responsible for the unintentional deaths of a black bear, a fisher, a Mexican free-tailed bat, two ravens, seven pet dogs, 21 skunks, 30 opossums, 57 rabbits, and more than 169 foxes.
Wildlife Services declined to comment on the Canyon Mansfield case, but the agency has temporarily banned M-44s in Idaho. It has also updated its federal regulations to, among other things, require signage closer to the poison traps, and it is currently undertaking a review of its use of M-44s, with a report due this fall.
Critics say the agency isn’t going far enough. In March Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon introduced a bill to ban M-44s and the pesticide Compound 1080, which is placed in livestock collars and is released when a predator bites down on the band. “Canyon Mansfield is only alive today because of sheer luck,” DeFazio said in a press release. “The federal government should not be using these extreme measures in the name of so-called predator control.” The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), WildEarth Guardians, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Fund for Animals filed a lawsuit in April to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to complete an analysis it started in 2011 on the effects of sodium cyanide on threatened and endangered species. (The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on the case.) And in August, CBD, WildEarth Guardians, NRDC, and 15 other conservation groups petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to outlaw M-44s.
“I would hope that the EPA and Wildlife Services will take a look at all of these recent tragic events and realize that the risk is just too high,” says CBD senior attorney Collette Adkins. “It’s almost laughable that they would suggest bigger warning signs. That wouldn’t have prevented the wolf in Oregon that triggered the device. Dogs can’t read warning signs.”
No humans have ever been killed by M-44s, but a 2012 Sacramento Bee investigation found that the devices had exposed at least 18 Wildlife Services employees and several others to cyanide between 1987 and 2012.
John Steuber, Wildlife Services Montana director, doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of the Canyon Mansfield incident, but he’s worked with M-44s in various roles during his 30 years with the agency. As Steuber recalls from his early days as a wildlife specialist in Texas, when installing an M-44, one should wear a long-sleeved shirt, place a gloved hand over the device when setting it, work upwind in case the spring trips, and carry six ampules of amyl nitrite, an inhalable antidote, at all times.
The EPA, which regulates pesticides, identifies 26 restrictions for installing M-44s, including posting signs, receiving permission from landowners, and not placing them within 200 feet of a body of water or within half a mile of anyone’s home. (The M-44 Canyon and his dog stumbled upon was within a quarter-mile of three homes.)
Wildlife Services also doesn’t allow M-44s in areas with resident wolves, says Steuber, and permits them in bear country only during hibernation. (The M-44’s rancid odor doesn’t entice felines, like mountain lions or lynx, which prefer fresh meat, he says.) “With anything, there will be some accidents with tragic results, whether it’s a dog killed or a nontarget wolf,” he says. “But I think M-44s can be used safely and are really a valuable tool to have.”
Zack Strong, a staff attorney for NRDC, disagrees. “We don’t think there’s a place for M-44s anymore,” he states, because the devices kill indiscriminately and are dangerous. “There are rarely second chances with M-44s. When an animal triggers one, that animal is very likely going to die, whether it was the intended target or not.” What’s more, he adds, the traps don’t address wildlife–livestock conflicts over the long term. It’s often just a matter of time before another predator moves in.
While Steuber and Strong don’t agree on M-44s, they have been working together to test and provide ranchers with nonlethal alternatives. One recent study found that such approaches can be more effective at protecting livestock. Of course, the willingness of ranchers to invest time and money in these strategies is key.
Good Fences, Good Neighbors
When Jim Stone graduated from college in the mid-1980s, his dad gave him the family ranch. Stone headed down the road to Trixi’s Antler Saloon, a popular bar and restaurant in Ovando, Montana (population: 81), to celebrate. The shine didn’t last long. “I’d worked on a ranch my whole life, but I didn’t know a goddamn thing about managing it,” he says over lunch at Trixi’s in August. “I was overgrazing; it was a mess. I almost ran it into the ground.”
At a loss, Stone contacted and joined up with local landowners who’d been working for a decade to build public–private partnerships to conserve and enhance the natural resources—and way of life—along the Blackfoot River (immortalized in Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It). In 1993 the group formally formed the Blackfoot Challenge to encourage others to support the ecological health of the watershed.
When grizzlies started returning there in the 1990s, the organization worked with numerous partners, including Defenders of Wildlife and FWS, to incorporate nonlethal control measures. In all, 120 participating residents have strung 50,000 feet of electric fence around calving areas and beehives and hired three range riders to track predator movement across the landscape. The presence of the riders helps deter predators, and they keep the herds together—and thus safer—when danger is around. The community of ranchers has also sent 5,600 livestock carcasses (a guaranteed bear attractant) to a Montana Department of Transportation compost facility. Together, these efforts have helped grizzly conflicts drop a whopping 93 percent since 2003.
“It sounds easy—now,” says Stone. It took years to persuade landowners to collaborate with federal land managers (their historical foes) and to accept federal funds and private grants. Take, for example, the carcass-removal program. Ranchers had long dragged any dead livestock to boneyards on their property―a practice, one study found, that more than doubles the likelihood of clashes between humans and bears. But for those who take great pride in their animal husbandry, putting the cows and sheep they lost on a DOT truck where anyone could see them was a hard habit to adopt. Meanwhile, the DOT was being asked to expand its roadkill compost program to include private animals. Stone said it took time to build the necessary relationships, but now the DOT’s 12-foot pile of woodchip-covered carcasses, kept behind an electric fence, receives about 400 cows and sheep a year. The soil they eventually produce will enrich vegetation along Montana’s roadsides.
“I don’t want to paint it all as a rosy picture. It’s not,” says Stone. A neighbor, for instance, is currently dealing with a wolf that’s decided beef is better than venison. “But it’s a whole lot easier to wake up in the morning and know you’re working with all your neighbors and you’ve got multiple, multiple partners that have your best interest in continuing this working landscape.”
On his 2,500-acre ranch, Stone relies on permanent electric fencing around calving lots, uses temporary electric fencing where the cattle graze, and is currently electrifying the ranch’s boundary fences. A graduate student is also busy researching how these fences affect wildlife movement on Stone’s property and elsewhere along the Blackfoot. (One study along 600 miles of fenced rangeland in Utah and Colorado found one dead deer, pronghorn, or elk tangled in barbed wire for every 2.5 miles of fence.) While Stone was initially unsettled by the thought that only thin polywire would separate his cattle from Highway 200, so far the animals are respecting it. The upper strand is 42 inches high, which elk can jump, while deer can slip beneath the bottom strand at 23 inches—heights that comply with the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks wildlife-friendly fence guidelines. Grizzlies also appear to be adapting, climbing over nonelectrified gates or jumping fences when the juice is off. Stone doesn’t want to restrict bears from moving across his land; he just wants to keep them away from his livestock.
When range riders tell Stone that wolves or bears are near his grazing cattle (coyotes aren’t a problem here, since wolves kill them), the rancher adds brightly colored nylon flags to his portable fencing. The idea behind the practice, called fladry, is that carnivores are wary of new things in their environment. “It’s just one more deterrent,” says Stone. “Maybe they’ll go around rather than through.”
Moving fences and setting up and taking down fladry, which can be used only for short durations to remain effective, is time-consuming and costly, however. Rolling out a mile of electric fence takes an hour, and about half that time to roll it back up. But on the plus side, says Stone, he no longer has to maintain dozens of miles of barbed wire. “I used to look at a nice, linear barbed wire fence and think it was so cool,” he says. “Now I’m almost offended by it.”
A Potpourri of Predator Control
The new livestock protections are gaining traction elsewhere, too. Partly due to discussions with NRDC’s Strong, Steuber decided to hold workshops around Montana where Wildlife Services experts discuss various nonlethal predator controls and the science behind them. “We were one of the first states to start doing these,” says Steuber. More than 80 ranchers, conservationists, academics, and agency representatives showed up to the first workshop in Dillon in 2015. Steuber is planning the fifth for this winter.
“We’ve also started doing a lot more nonlethal projects ourselves,” he says. Wildlife Services has, for instance, partnered with NRDC and the predator conservation nonprofit People and Carnivores to pay for, install, and maintain turbo fladry (flags on electrified wire) on multiple ranches during calving. So far it seems to be working—even in places like the Front Range, which Steuber describes as “grizzly central.” A couple of years ago, a sow and her cub killed some 70 sheep in one night. Then fladry went up in the area. “We were expecting disaster,” he says. “But at least anecdotally, it looks like there was no predation.”
To date, the partnership has installed turbo fladry in Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota, and Wildlife Services recently committed to bringing it to six more western states. “I’m really excited to see the use of this tool expanding,” says Strong. He attributes the quick adoption to its 100 percent success rate in the projects that he and Wildlife Services have led over the last two years. Before the flags, wolves or coyotes had attacked livestock at each site. “On each ranch, during the time the fladry was up, we experienced zero depredations,” says Strong. “That’s a great track record so far.”
Still, Strong cautions, the tool has limitations. It’s most effective in a relatively small area (about 100 acres max) and for only a few months at a time to prevent the animals from becoming accustomed to the strangely colored fencing. Every few days someone also has to check the fence and free any furled flags. And although it lasts for years, fladry, posts, and chargers come with a price tag of about $3,500 per mile. “There’s no one panacea, nothing that works in all cases at all times,” says Strong. “It’s about finding the right mix.”
And to this mix, Wildlife Services may add new guard dogs. U.S. sheep producers started using Great Pyrenees and Akbash in the 1980s to fend off coyotes, but a few years ago, the agency began hearing that the pooches weren’t able to scare off incoming grizzlies and wolves. So Julie Young, a research wildlife biologist at the National Wildlife Research Center, Wildlife Services’ research branch, began investigating whether larger European breeds, bred specifically to fend off wolves and bears, might fare better. During the four-year project, which recently wrapped up, her team recruited 21 sheep producers in five states to test out three imported breeds—Cão de Gado Transmontanos from Portugal, Karakachans from Bulgaria, and Kangals from Turkey—along with traditional white dogs (as Pyrenees hybrids are known).
While Young hasn’t yet analyzed the dogs’ effect on sheep survival, she has found differences in their behavior. Kangals pursue the predator—great when taking on a wolf or two but dangerous when facing a large pack. Transmontanos, meanwhile, tend to stay with the sheep when they sense danger. Karakachans also hang with the sheep, but they bark a lot—handy for alerting ranch hands in remote lands but likely irksome to neighbors in more populous areas.
Even if the results show that these big dogs from Europe are superior sheep protectors, Young doesn’t expect ranchers to run out and spend around $1,800 apiece (fairly comparable to the cost of a white dog) for them—at least not until the time comes to replace their current dogs. Word is spreading about her work, though, and Young regularly receives queries from sheep ranchers. She’s also hoping U.S. cattle ranchers, who haven’t historically employed guard dogs, will take note. But she says, “Change is slow.”
Learning on the Fly
Nutter sets out from her ranch house in a pickup, doing a sedate 15 miles an hour to avoid kicking up dust on the dirt road. Bumping past a cabin that western artist Charlie Russell once inhabited and an abandoned gold mine, she explains why the Marias River Livestock Association partnered with Wildlife Services to hold a nonlethal workshop in late 2015 in Conrad. Dozens of stakeholders showed up to hear about the latest science on carcass removal, guard dogs, electric fencing, and changing wolf and grizzly populations. “If I know that there's wolves and grizzly bears moving in,” says Nutter, “then the best thing I can do is build my knowledge so I know what to do.”
She gets frustrated, however, when people insist that because the Blackfoot Challenge has implemented nonlethal predator control throughout its watershed, the Marias group should do the same. “We can’t re-create in one year, or even five years, what they've been doing for 20 or 30,” says Nutter. “That’s a real unrealistic expectation.” Her association is run entirely by volunteers, for one thing, and there’s no full-time staff dedicated to outreach or writing grants for new equipment. It also covers a huge region: 8,050 square miles, an area roughly the size of Massachusetts and nearly 3.5 times as large as the Blackfoot watershed.
For the time being, Nutter still plans on placing M-44s on her property. Grizzlies and wolves haven’t resettled in these parts yet, and she’s worried about making additional investments. “Whether it’s electric fences or fladry or training a guard dog,” Nutter says, “what if I went out and spent thousands and thousands of dollars on all this stuff and it’s not what I need?” Her mind remains open to the alternatives, though. As Strong says, there’s no one cure-all for protecting livestock, and Nutter is reminded every calving season that lethal methods buy her only so much time before new predators move in.
As she turns her truck back toward the house, Nutter stops to examine dense bunches of chokecherries along the road. She plans to return later and pick them to make jam. But she can’t help but think about how appetizing these berries might be to grizzlies one day, too.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
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