SALEM, Ohio – It happens every year, yet Washington County, Pa., sheep owner George Wherry can’t prevent it.
The scene is usually the same: Wherry pastures his 500 Dorset ewes at his Scenery Hill farm and retreats to the house for the night.
When he visits the barn the next morning, things seem normal until he finds blood or cuts on a lamb or ewe.
His discoveries usually come in late March through early May, during peak lambing season.
Closer inspection shows the flock was attacked and massacred overnight. There’s usually evidence of the slaughter left as a calling card. Sometimes young lambs are carried off, but Wherry knows they’re missing.
The culprit: coyotes.
Can’t catch them. Wherry describes his plight as “a frustrating problem” and said the coyotes that run in this area are very difficult to apprehend.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission agrees, providing statistics showing the state’s total coyote population in the mid-1990s was between 20,000 and 30,000 canines.
Coyotes can be found in all habitats, from rural areas to the fringe of urban areas like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the game commission said.
A coyote’s keen sense of sight, smell and hearing help them elude capture.
“They know where you are, where the sheep are,” Wherry said.
Bad biology. Their elusiveness is only part of the population problem. Biologically, coyotes respond to threats to their population by rearing more litters with more pups each year.
And it doesn’t help farmers that peak coyote whelping season – when they give birth – coincides with lambing season. Females are forced to hunt for high protein foods, particularly the heart, lungs and liver of sheep, to make enough milk for their young.
Then, in June, pups are taught to hunt alongside their parents. Farmers watch helplessly as flocks dwindle.
Losing the flock. Wherry has every right to be frustrated: Since 1995, he has documented losses of more than 200 head of sheep.
Those numbers add up fast. When he totals his losses from the animal, plus indirect losses, such as the lost value of future replacement ewes – he figures he’s lost more than $100,000 in the past eight years.
Most businesses couldn’t stomach those losses.
“I’m losing no matter what over the true value of the lamb,” he said, noting slaughtered animals left in the pasture – some small lambs are carried off and never found – can qualify for indemnity payments from the state department of agriculture.
He said the $50 to $80 he sometimes receives for each dead animal doesn’t make up for his losses.
The department’s division of dog law enforcement handles reports of coyote and dog kills from farmers. Wherry’s been hit so many times that “the dog man and I are on first name terms,” he said.
Not extreme. Wherry’s radical situation isn’t the exception. As president of the Pennsylvania Sheep and Wool Growers Association, he shares gruesome stories with other members.
A neighbor three or four miles away has experienced at least three separate kills this year, Wherry said. When that farmer did a nose count in a pasture, he came up 28 lambs short.
A year ago, a Beaver County farmer found nearly 50 sheep and goats killed. They were bitten at the throat, a sure sign of coyote activity.
With the fall lambing season coming up, sheep herders are moving their ewes closer to the barn and adding guard llamas as deterrents, but they’re still vulnerable. It seems nothing can stop the predators.
Trying to help. After years of losses, state officials and lawmakers are stepping in.
State Rep. Tim Solobay of Washington and officials in the state department of agriculture are trying their hands at two separate solutions.
In September, Solobay introduced legislation that would require the state to establish a coyote predation management program.
That program would give farmers assistance in identifying, controlling and eliminating threats of coyotes to agricultural animals.
Agricultural animals include cattle, sheep, hogs, goats, horses, poultry or other animals used for commercial purposes.
Bill’s wording. Under the legislation, House Bill 1941, the department of agriculture would have the authority to work with federal, state and local officials to protect farm animals. The legislation would establish safeguards and provide protection to farmers and their animals.
“This measure is important for Washington and Greene county sheep and cattle farmers because of the damage coyotes are doing throughout the commonwealth,” Solobay said, knowing his constituents are losing hundreds to thousands of dollars each year.
The legislation is currently being studied in the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.
All predators. Despite recognizing the huge problem posed by coyotes, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture also sees and hears of other predators wreaking havoc on farms.
During trips to county fairs this summer, agriculture secretary Dennis Wolff spoke with farmers about their losses and said he was “alarmed at the economic impact of [the] problem” of wildlife harming domestic animals.
In September and October, the department of agriculture held meetings with farmers to hear their wants and needs in a livestock protection program.
The state department of agriculture’s proposed protection program would go beyond the coyote problem, though no specifics were available.
Birds and geese are also nuisances as they eat food meant for livestock, vegetable crops and destroy water quality in farm ponds and creeks.
USDA has reported one dairy farmer’s loss of $50,000 in feed in one year to barn birds. In addition, birds can also spread disease between farms like avian influenza or E. coli.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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Can I kill a coyote?
There is no closed season for killing a coyote in Pennsylvania or Ohio.
Ohio rules. In Ohio, hunters must have a valid hunting license unless they’re shooting a coyote on their own property, according to Jeff Westerfield, a division of wildlife research technician.
During deer shotgun and muzzleloader season, coyotes can be hunted 30 minutes before sunrise to sunset. Hunters must possess a license and deer tag, Westerfield said.
Keystone rules. In Pennsylvania, coyotes are one of the few animals that can be hunted on Sundays, according to game commission press secretary Jerry Seaser.
Hunters need a general hunting license but have no time or bag limits.
Hunters during the deer rifle season, Dec. 1-13, must possess a valid deer tag. Trappers with a furtaker’s license have unlimited bagging between Oct. 19 and Feb. 21, 2004.
– Andrea Myers
Coyote or dog? How to know
* The eastern coyote is usually tri-color (German shepherd-like), red, blond or dark brown (appears black at a distance). Adult males weigh 45 to 55 pounds; females, 35 to 40 pounds.
* Don’t confuse a coyote with a dog: Look for black lines running up and down the front of the front legs, yellow eyes and a cylindrical-shaped, low-hanging tail.
* Eastern coyotes don’t pack like wolves, but do run in family units and pairs.
* Coyotes usually steer clear of people. At night, they canvass farm fields, visit picnic sites and backyards in rural areas, and work the waysides of interstate highways in their quest for food.
* Coyotes rarely display aggressive behavior toward people. If people appear, they usually run.
* Coyotes usually kill by grabbing and holding onto an animal’s throat. Then, they consume the internal organs, particularly the liver, which is very nutritious. Dogs grab the hind quarters, which is also where they typically start eating.
* Coyotes are opportunists – they kill what they need and leave with it. On occasion they seem to go on killing sprees.
* Coyotes are very elusive when it comes to hunting and trapping them. Most are taken by sportsmen who shoot them while hunting other species.
* Coyotes have been documented in Pennsylvania since late 1930s and ’40s. Rumors of the state stocking coyotes in the state are untrue. The game commission has never released out-of-state coyotes, or trapped and transferred coyotes.
* Coyotes can be hunted year-round with few exceptions and there are no bag limits.