Reducing Human-Animal Conflict: Integrated Pest Management at Rock Bottom Ranch
February 11, 2024
I was carrying a 3-gallon water toward a standpipe, casually taking in the snowy, winter morning when I glanced into our sheep paddock. Underneath the willow, a small group of magpies seemed busy picking something apart, as I looked closer, I realized it was a pregnant ewe who wasn’t moving. Something was wrong. Adrenaline gripped me, hopping over the fence, I ran. With each step, getting closer to the willow, I put the pieces together. She’d been attacked. I was too late.
Colorado has many apex predators with most of their populations located largely in the western portion of the state. Rock Bottom Ranch’s property is 113 acres, smack-dab in the middle of a thriving wildlife corridor. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that our non-domesticated visitors have continuously kept us on our toes as they work to support the surrounding ecosystem. The weasels, foxes, skunks, raccoons, mountain lions, bears, coyotes, and now wolves all have a vital role in this Rocky Mountain landscape. Our role as land stewards is to ensure that these wild animals have minimal interactions with our crew and ranch animals, so they don’t become habituated to shelter or food sources.
Human-animal conflicts are a tale as old as time. As Mary Roach put it in her book, Fuzz, “The question has defied satisfactory resolution for centuries: What is the proper course when nature breaks laws intended for people?”
Photo by Molly Farrell, 2023 ACES Vegetable Apprentice.
Rock Bottom Ranch’s answer to this question looks similar to other ranches and farms; we employ integrated pest management (IPM) to minimize predator pressure, while mitigating the risks posed to people and the environment. In the instance of a predator interaction, our IPM strategies include a step-by-step approach to evaluate the predator, the type of pressure it’s applying on our systems, and how to safely deter the animal from continuing its undesirable behavior. The majority of effective IPM tools are built into our management-intensive rotational grazing systems. Keeping animals in consolidated flocks avoids leaving one animal alone and vulnerable, and moving the animals regularly makes it harder for predators to get used to our patterns. Intensive grazing mimics evolutionarily adapted behaviors of ruminants responding to predation which in turn, also mimics how the perennial pasture plants adapted to be grazed. Our grazing practices are designed to not only help manage our pastures to help increase soil health, but provide us with the first line of protection against predation.
We are trying to take care of the wildlife as much as we are trying to protect our livestock. Our IPM strategies are intended to be proactive, limiting interactions before they happen, with the goal of preventing habituation (building habits around gaining resources) and desensitization (increased comfort around humans). We work hard to avoid needing to take reactive responses to habituated or desensitized wild animals. Once animals become habituated and desensitized causing them to exhibit unnatural behavior patterns, reactive responses may be needed to keep humans safe, but our goal is always to try every tool we have available to keep wild animals wild.
Chris Cohen Photography.
While our steps don’t always succeed in completely eliminating wildlife interactions, in recent years we’ve seen huge success in dishabituation and maintaining sensitivity of wild bears with diligent management. We have strengthened physical barriers against bears accessing food sources by installing two silos to hide away chicken feed and diligent use of effective electric fencing around animals and any other tasty treats they might find. We have always made the decision to only raise seasonal meat birds and slaughter between June and September, removing a potential, tempting food source as bears are more active in searching for food between October and November, when they are in hyperphagia in preparation for winter hibernation. Finally, any time there is a bear seen on the property, we use hazing strategies; using loud noises and waving your arms to make the animal uncomfortable and encourage them to leave the situation or area. All these management strategies have limited the rewards bears gain from interacting with our production, thus resulting in decreased interaction as bears search for food elsewhere.
As for protecting our sheep herd, hot electric fences and guardian animals are key to preventing predation. Our fearless protectors, Cindy and Estrella, are both llamas. Llamas are naturally defensive against canines and felines, therefore we utilize their dominant and defensive instincts to protect our sheep herd if a predator were to approach electric fencing. These guarding animals and electric fence barriers are another proactive step in addition to our intensive grazing systems.
After every interaction with wildlife, we make a thorough assessment of the incident, identifying weak points within our production, and taking immediate action to reduce vulnerabilities. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to managing wildlife interactions and conflicts. On the day we lost our ewe, our process looked like calling in our District Wildlife Manager from CPW for help identifying the predator. He helped us identify tracks, observe the details of the scene, measure bite marks to determine who we were dealing with, and answered all questions. In the end, we determined the suspected culprits were likely 2-3 coyotes. We decided to immediately move our sheep to an electrified paddock, as they had been in a non-electrified permanent fenced paddock with vulnerabilities specific to coyote predation. Ensuring that this incident remained a “one and done” with these coyotes was necessary to make sure they would move on to other food sources. Difficult days like these spur critical thought and strategic action; our CPW contact aided in our ability to assess and adapt our management of the sheep to better protect our herd as well as the pack of coyotes from future conflicts. Continuing to be responsive to our vulnerabilities and diligent in IPM will prevent habitual learning.
Chris Cohen Photography.
The timing of this attack comes at a moment of fear, anxiety, and excitement, as the state of Colorado has proceeded with its Wolf Restoration and Management Plan. Almost 80 years after wolves were hunted out of Colorado because of livestock predation on ranches, Colorado voters passed Proposition 114. Ranchers’ concern for the security of their livelihoods has again been brought to the forefront since the implementation of this plan, especially as wolves have started to be released in the past month. The state is required to compensate ranchers for any livestock-wolf conflict (loss of livestock after state-verified wolf predation). Losing an animal to a predator is never easy; the loss of one of our sheep was the beginning of an emotionally draining day. The death of an animal that you spend countless months or years investing in and caring for is a painful loss. There’s guilt, grief, and racing thoughts on how to solve the problem at hand and avoid further losses. However, our crew has proven that we have a plethora of tools and strategies at our disposal to manage these events when they do occur. As wolves are restored to our ecosystem, this is a pivotal moment for the implementation and use of IPM systems and tools. I have no doubt that when the time comes, the RBR team will be able to adapt and appropriately manage our livestock to ensure the success of wolf populations, and learn along-side other farmers and ranchers committed to intensive grazing as a predator management tool.
Farming is a reminder that as we work the land, we are not operating on a separate gear but within the larger structure of the ecosystem. Every day, I’m made aware of the wildness of this environment and how our ranch animals play a part in the cycle of life as they move across our acreage. The farmer in me is emotionally challenged by the loss of a sheep. The environmentalist in me can’t help but think of how coyotes need to hunt to sustain themselves. Caring for the predators, is caring for our sheep, and is caring for our land. The conversations about wolf reintroduction are often simplified to a fight between ranchers advocating for their livelihoods and environmentalists wanting to restore an animal back to its historic ecosystem. However, at this moment, it’s imperative to recognize farming and ranching as land stewardship. We need to provide farmers with all the necessary tools, and financial ability, to take care of their livestock, the lands they graze, and all animals in the ecosystem. As we deal with wolf reintroduction in Colorado, IPM frameworks provide a robust toolbox for effective management solutions.
As Aldo Leopold said, “Harmony with the land is like harmony with a friend. You cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say you cannot have game and hate predators. The land is one organism.”