In recent years, Ohio has put forth incredible efforts to expand and enhance the abundant natural areas in the state and the wildlife that resides therein. This has innumerable benefits, but it can also lead to some challenges for agriculture. Particularly in southeastern Ohio, livestock predation has been on the rise for some farmers in recent years.
“I have lost significant numbers of lambs and I have even lost a few ewes to what I think are coyotes. With the really young lambs it is hard to tell. Sometimes you can’t even find them,” said Shawn Ray, who lambs around 140 ewes in Noble County. “Sometimes you never find the lamb, you just know you weighed at tagged this number at birthing time and then a month or so later when you are doing vaccinations you see that there are some missing. The coyotes were pretty consistent this year from lambing in May until we pulled the lambs in to the feedlot. Then they stopped killing lambs, but for another month I was losing ewes. They are the worst when they have the young on. We live in a unique area where the bobcats, the coyotes and the red fox all seem to find a way to co-exist. I think our deer herd and turkey population is being impacted also.”
Of course, predator problems for the farm are not new. Ray has implemented a combination of management practices, guard dogs and donkeys that had minimized problems with predators up until fairly recently.
“The dogs and the donkeys were working up until a year or year and a half ago. We have tried to do some trapping and snaring. We have caught a couple, but we have more than a couple out there. It is frustrating,” he said. “I think the volume of coyotes has increased. The dogs are out and active every night, but I think the coyotes have learned how to distract the dogs. And, during the day the dogs sometimes want to go for a walk. We’ve gotten calls with them sometimes more than four or five miles away. They are always home at night and active, but I know we have had some losses from coyotes during the day when the dogs think the coyotes are bedded down.”
It seems the coyotes are so plentiful the livestock are getting accustomed to their presence.
“I also think the donkey and the sheep have gotten too used to the coyotes. We have found dead sheep probably 15 feet from where the sheep are bedding down,” Ray said. “I am getting ready to hire a professional trapper. We need someone with more time and skill than what we have.”
Though Ray has no had problems with them on his farm, black vultures are also causing increasing livestock loss in Ohio.
“Belle Valley is five miles from me and about three years ago they were trying to get ahead of the coyotes and then black vultures took up nesting in that area. They totally changed their lambing operation on their research farm,” Ray said. “They redid their barn and started lambing in the barn a month or so earlier, which matched their labor situation better anyway. If I have to go lambing back in the barn, I will probably have to reduce my sheep numbers because of the labor requirements of lambing inside.”
Ohio does have an indemnity program to reimburse livestock producers for losses to predation — it just has no funding.
“Even if they get the indemnity program funding back, you have to go through the effort to keep the carcasses, if you even have the carcasses,” Ray said.
With no funding, the wildlife officials can only offer advice.
“The problem of predation still exists. It has not gone away since the indemnity program funding has gone away,” said Jeff Pelc, USDA Wildlife Services biologist and district supervisor for southern Ohio. “There is no money in the indemnity program, but it does not relinquish the terms of the program. Producers should still call the wildlife officer or the county dog warden to fill out that paperwork. Without that there is no record of the losses. From there, we can provide some operational assistance for predation management. Coyotes, black vultures and feral dogs are culprits for livestock predation. It takes a lot of training to tell what predator is causing the injuries. All of the wildlife officer cadets have training in predation identification as part of their credentials. A lot of times they will be the first responders that come out and try to identify the problem. Sometimes the county dog warden will as well.”
In general, coyotes are the most consistent problem in southern Ohio.
“Coyotes are very proficient at what they do. We have not had many complaints about bobcats. We do have a report of poultry being killed. That is the only report that we have about bobcats. Will they become more of a problem in the future? Potentially, yes,” Pelc said. “The black vulture concerns and complaints have spread from southwest Ohio and followed the Appalachian Ridge up towards northeast Ohio. We have complaints as far north as Columbiana County about black vulture predation kills to livestock. I have seen them here in Franklin County and they are in Fairfield, Ross, Hocking and Vinton. There is also a high density of them in Brown and Highland counties. When the animals are still on the ground helpless as they are being born, that is when the black vultures take advantage of the animals. They are gregarious by nature and they hunt in large groups. You have multiple birds that overwhelm the adult ewe or cow and take advantage of that situation.”
Pelc recommends an integrated approach for dealing with predation challenges.
“With any wildlife conflict, we recommend an integrated wildlife damage management approach. Use as many tools in the toolbox as possible including harassment, husbandry practices, and lethal removal for keeping that damage to a minimum. Trapping or snaring works very well for coyotes,” Pelc said. “Those tools work 24 hours a day seven days a week. With black vultures, harassment works very well. They are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and they cannot be killed without certain permits. We can get producers a federal depredation permit which will allow them to remove a few of the vultures to aid in their harassment efforts. It is not going to allow them to shoot a flock of 40 or 50, but it allows them to shoot a few. Then we recommend taking that dead bird and hanging it by its feet in a tree where other vultures in the area can see it hanging. I have used this personally and it has worked very well to keep those black vultures away from the livestock you are trying to protect.”
The key step for getting assistance is reporting the problem.
“If you report this to your local wildlife officer or county dog warden, that paper trail goes to the Ohio Department of Agriculture to track the trends and report the damage to us,” Pelc said. “Contacting the right people can hopefully alleviate some of the problems that are out there.”