About those Churro sheep

  Dear HCN,

Lisa Jones' cover article in the Jan. 31, 2000 High Country News essays the travails Lyle McNeal has encountered with his Churro sheep. While I can't judge the accuracy of the whole article, the portion I have personal knowledge of is just plain wrong! The writer states that Dr. McNeal's sheep were used by federal scientists who welcomed the sheep "only because they could help ... determine whether male or female coyotes ate more sheep." Absolutely not so.

I'm one of those federal scientists. Briefly, we offered to pasture Lyle McNeal's sheep as a favor to him, and only after he asked. Our sole condition for managing his sheep using our resources and personnel through an entire summer grazing season was that we would not engage in active, lethal coyote control. Rather, we would test a new non-lethal method, as part of a federal program to develop alternative depredation control strategies.

What we wanted to know is whether coyotes without puppies were less likely to kill sheep - not whether one sex or the other kills sheep, since not surprisingly, most any coyote can kill sheep. We surgically sterilized captured coyotes in experimental territories and released them. Coyotes captured in control territories were not sterilized before release. Sterile coyotes both maintained their territories and killed far fewer sheep than controls. In fact, during the first summer (1998), five sterile packs killed only one lamb, while six control packs killed 11. During the second summer (1999), four sterile packs killed only three lambs, while eight control packs killed 22. Sterilization reduced depredation by about 80 percent.

To summarize: Churro sheep were only used in 1998. Twelve lambs, not 37, were killed. The Churro flock was saved from slaughter, the sheep were pastured and fattened for a whole summer at no cost to Dr. McNeal, and valuable data were collected that will help develop new, effective and non-lethal methods of depredation management. Not a bad deal. So, I have to wonder, just how accurate is the rest of the article?

Russ Mason
Logan, Utah

Dr. Mason is a professor of fisheries and wildlife at Utah State University and leader of a WS field station in Logan, Utah, that focuses on the development of nonlethal methods of coyote management.