By Ann Hess, Staff Writer
If you Google wolf attack, you can see it’s an ongoing battle for cattle producers from Wisconsin all the way to Oregon. And with the gray wolf remaining on the Endangered Species List, it’s left ranchers with few options to defend their herds against these predators.
But what if the herd could defend itself?
That’s just what rancher Mark Coats believes is possible through a Rancher Predator Awareness Program he’s created with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“There is a relationship between predator and prey, no matter the prey nor the predator. The predator requires an individual, and the ability to capture that individual,” Coats said. “If we can interrupt that relationship and prevent individualized events, then we are interrupting that relationship.”
Coats, who has cattle operations in Siskiyou County in far Northern California and Klamath and Jackson counties in Oregon, began researching wolf and cattle behavior six years ago when OR-7, a lone male gray wolf that was electronically tracked, escaped from the Imnaha Pack in northeast Oregon and passed through his lands. OR-7 soon found a female friend and the pack grew.
“The first probable depredation occurred in Siskiyou County. I was confronted by ranchers, sportsmen, and concerned citizens who wanted solutions,” said Coats, who was the acting president of the Siskiyou County Cattlemen at the time. “Although I had been attending local meetings, the search for answers led me to other producers confronted with this same issue in other states and areas.”
The concern spurred Coats to research what could be done to remediate the situation and his findings found that the answer may just be in the herd. As Coats points out, the herd is a defensive posture livestock, but over time ranching and management practices have caused some livestock to lose the herding reaction and become desirable prey to predators. The Rancher Predator Awareness objective is to re-install those herd instincts among livestock production and to create a reaction that more closely resembles the musk oxen or bison.
Coats first got the opportunity to test out his herd defensive program after observing his cattle around a new puppy that was quite a handful. The cattle were not dog broke, and the young dog needed work. Coats said it seemed like a perfect fit for testing his theory.
“One day my wife and I were feeding and the cattle left the feed line and grouped together on a side hill. My first thought was the dog had gotten out of the pickup somehow,” Coats said. “What surprised me was the dog was still in the pickup but crossing the county road were five coyotes. These cattle had grouped into a defensive posture from the coyotes presence a fourth of a mile away.”
Coats said the Rancher Predator Awareness training the cattle receive is the same way that all animals are trained through … pressure and release.
“There is pressure until the correct response is achieved and the reward is the relief of the pressure,” Coats said. “As the famous horse trainer Ray Hunt said ‘you make the right things easy and the wrong things difficult.’”
The fundamental differences in a stock dog versus a predator awareness dog is that the stock dog uses pressure point pressure to return an individual to the herd group – which is basically training and promoting the flight reaction from the cattle. The flight and the chase sequence is what the Predator Awareness Program is trying to stop.
“The predator awareness dog actually tries to separate the individual cow and continues the pressure or harassment until the cow becomes aware that out here individualized is not working so well,” Coats said. “The only relief to the pressure is the herd. By training the individual response of Predator Awareness, the group soon becomes aware that the herd is their safe zone.”
Coats said while the Rancher Predator Awareness training is still in its infancy, the stockmanship skill can be applied at any ranch in the U.S. He’s implemented the program on three ranches in Northern California and Southern Oregon, monitoring the predators and cattle with trail cams. With three calving dates mixed in and land encompassing two U.S. forestry permits and nine private leases, Coats had his work set out for himself in protecting the 900 mother cows and replacements with his program. And it worked. None of the ranches had any losses due to predators.
Coats hopes to make his findings more available through a series of workshops. The organization has been working on trying to raise awareness and funding.
After all, it’s a program Coats said more ranchers need to consider.
“By encouraging Predator Awareness and the standing solution we are in effect stopping the chase sequence and deterring conflict,” Coats said. “The ESA protects the wolves, the ranchers need solutions that can deter losses without additional costs, Predator Awareness accomplishes that and this stockmanship skill can be easily taught and maintained.”