Chris Gill on Predator Removals

Dear Family and Friends,

As Savory says, we almost always achieve our short-term goals but often at terrible unintended long-term cost.  Or as Rollins says: Rule #1 is “Do no harm.”

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I think Richard’s comments summarize the conundrum beautifully: viewed holistically, the specific things we do that interfere with natural processes are often an unintended source of long-term damage.   No one can list all the ways that predator control may harm deer over long terms for the simple reason that no one fully understands the web of life of which these animals (coyotes and deer)  are a part.

As another example of unintended consequence, consider the story of the mule deer crashes on the Kaibab Plateau on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, as described below:

Theodore Roosevelt signed a Congressional act in 1906, turning the North Kaibab into the Grand Canyon National Game Preserve. His action closed it to hunting, and US Forest Service trappers subsequently annihilated more than 6,200 large predators.

At the time, the herd consisted of 3,000 to 4,000 deer. Less than 20 years later, 100,000 of them roamed the 1,300,000 acres that comprise the 60-by-40-mile preserve. Death by mass starvation quickly followed. Over the winter of 1923-24, the growing herd ate everything they could reach. The estimated death toll fell just short of 60,000. This infamous “preservation” effort now ranks among the worst mismanagement of game in modern times.

Acknowledging the gross judgment error, the AGFD and the US Forest Service came to an agreement in 1924 to reinstate hunting. The population still declined, dipping to a low of 20,000 in 1934. Then it climbed, reaching as high as 50,000 in the 1950s and 60s. Even though the habitat was in excellent condition, the herd plummeted again to less than 8,000 in the 1970s. Some speculators blamed increased predator populations, while others faulted too much either-sex hunting over the previous decades. The exact cause never came to light, however.

And yet, and yet…  The stories above and below  do not disprove the hypothesis that some level of coyote control may help the deer herd, which we control through hunting.

Also remember that everything we do not do also may cause its own unsuspected consequence: consider the damaging effect of total rest on desert rangelands when cattle are removed to ‘help’ plants.

A wise observation says that what is most dangerous is not what we do not know, but rather what we ‘know’, that is wrong.  De-stocking was another practice tried on the Kaibab.  This effort, and the vast damage from this is unrecognized, and so goes unmentioned in the above article.  Why?  Because, within  researcher-dominated US range and wildlife institutions it is ‘known’ that overgrazing is caused by too many cattle, and ranges must be ‘protected’ from large animal herds.

The elimination of wolves, combined with other factors we at best vaguely perceive,  exploded coyotes.  Why do we think the current population levels of coyotes are ‘normal’ ?  Why not manage coyotes as we do deer, elk, etc?   Can’t we say coyotes are vital and then manage them like cattle, bison, sheep, deer, elk, pronghorn, ducks, geese, doves, or for that matter, salmon returns?  Why must the choices be either uncontrolled population, or, attempted extermination?

I agree with each of you, and also with Zach and Don who observe that our deer numbers are down and we need sound management  to turn that around.  This requires consideration of the problem and solutions in terms of complexity not simplicity.  As Richard points out, the heart of our deer program is habitat restoration.  And, the heart of the habitat-improvement effort is planned grazing.  And that, by definition, means deciding where to put animals, in what numbers, for how long, with what effect, and for what reasons.  As Savory says, “All that works is good decision making, and good decision making works by definition”.  So how about a coyote plan?

Look at the predator photos posted on this site: Some well-intentioned subset of scientists, landowners, bureaucrats or conservationists  would favor the extirpation of every species shown, under some rationale. We have to get away from this eradication-thinking,  without giving up on management.

Steve, Louis, Mike and Misty (or whomever): What is the research, i.e., study data, concerning whether controlling coyotes increases mule deer, or helps the health of herds?   And what long-term effects on deer from such programs  have been studied?  What lessons can be extrapolated from elsewhere?  How can we develop a coyote protocol based on what we do for other species?

Let us put our heads together and debate, and figure this out.

And Louis: here is topic worthy of attention from Borderlands.

Posted by Chris Gill

  1. Chris and Steve,

    I have been following when I can. Am at the moment in Johannesburg airport en route to London with time to catchup on some email.I think you have it Chris – just plan your grazing and all decisions toward your holisticgoal – so if you want more deer then produce them! Do this through providing cover, feed and water etc. Steve is right to be concerned about cover but holistic planned grazing should if planned to do so, increase cover. So where you Steve state Any form of grazing management which reduces the amount of standing vertical grass cover is going to allow for increased predation loss. While there may be some ecological benefits of trampling standing grass to the horizontal position on the soil surface, this practice does reduce the extent of fawning cover. This is not quite correct – if you do not lay litter water cycle will decrease and all vegetation decrease, including cover. I think you will find that if you manage the soil surface properly everything will increase – grass, brush, deer.On Dimbangombe we were losing most species that are surface breeders and do not run in large herds – reedbuck, duiker, bushbuck in particular – all due to lack of cover and consequently very high predation by baboons and other predators (we have many). Now over the last few years, keeping the fires out and planning the grazing we are seeing an explosion of these same species.

    All the best,
    Allan Savory

    Reply

  2. Allan and Chris,

    I do see your point; however there are lots of places (millions of acres) in the Trans Pecos that have stable mule deer and pronghorn populations that do not practice planned grazing; they have good standing cover with no apparent decline in plant cover, plant vigor, etc. Also good food supply (forbs and browse). I too would like to see an improved soil surface that will accept rainfall more rapidly. Maybe this (cover issue) is a valid reason to do the checkerboard grazing pattern that you have used in past years, where alternating pasture units remain ungrazed in any one year in order to build standing cover. Regardless, I know you (Chris) are putting much thought into your decisions and I applaud you for that.

    Best wishes to both of you.
    Steve Nelle

    Reply

  3. Mr. Gill,

    Found this in A handbook for bobwhite quail management in the west Texas rolling plains:

    “A major problem lies in the holdover of faith in management techniques that have proven ineffectual in the past. The most widely advocated of these is the close-the-season-stop-all-hunting approach. Another is the stocking of non-habitable range with pen-reared bobwhites. Still another is predator control. None of these works in deficient habitat and none are needed where the habitat is right. Such apparently easy solutions cripple effective management and merely repeat past failures.’ (Jackson, p12).”

    Best,
    Mark Tyson
    Circle Ranch Biologist

    Reply

  4. Mr. Gill,

    I am unsure of the end value of predator control. I have talked with multiple graduate students here and recalled scientific literature I have read in the past. The consensus is that without intensive, long term, highly expensive predator control the benefits are minimal. One source was part of a project in S. TX for 5 years where they controlled coyotes. The area was divided into 200 ac high fenced portions with predator wire installed. With constant control at a medium effort, the coyotes were not controlled to a suitable level for their goals. Specific targeted predator control during the nesting/fawning season may provide some benefit. However, a long term predator control program would not produce enough results to pay for itself.Long term predator control may appear attractive, but I feel it would be less effective than measures taken to improve the habitat on Circle Ranch. Look at our nesting success comparison between the desert line (9 of 18 nests survived) and the east line (13 of 18 nests survived) (document attached). The availability of better habitat resulted in better nesting success in my opinion. This is my professional opinion based on my observations on the ranch along with my educational experience. There may be other factors I am not aware of that could make a case for predator control on the ranch, but I believe I have considered the natural structure and function of the ecosystem and the role that predators play within it.

    Best,
    Mark Tyson
    Circle Ranch Biologist(512) 497-8490

    Reply

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