Can sheep and coyote ever coexist?
Taking a cue from the coyote, a scrappy coalition of conservationists, biologists, entrepreneurs and ranchers in Montana is trying to claw its way into the unstable woolgrowers' market of the Northern Rockies, while fostering tolerance for the dog-sized carnivore.
Two years ago, the founders of Predator Friendly Wool conceived of a way to use the market to help both predators and ranchers. They reasoned that environmentally conscious consumers might be willing to pay more for clothes made from wool grown by ranchers who don't kill coyotes. In turn, ranchers might be willing to risk leaving predators alone if they could receive premium prices - nearly double the going market rate - for their wool.
Despite vocal opposition from some ranchers, the idea is already beginning to pay off. By early 1995, nearly 1,500 pounds of Predator Friendly wool were washed and converted into a special line of hats, mittens and coats by fashion designer Cindy Owings. And the managers of Robert Redford's Sundance Company, among others, agreed to advertise the green products in 3.5 million mail order catalogs. Hundreds of consumers and a number of ranchers from around the country have phoned and written the group for more information about the idea and the products.
"We're putting our money where our mouth is," says Becky Weed, a sheep producer in the Gallatin Valley outside of Bozeman who hopes to qualify with a few bundles of wool next year. She and another Predator Friendly participant have made beautiful blankets out of the first "clean" batches of fiber sheared last spring.
To qualify for price bonuses, ranchers must meet strict criteria. No coyotes can be killed during the calendar year prior to when the sheep are sheared in the spring. Ranchers also are encouraged to adopt non-lethal methods of protecting livestock, such as stringing up electric fencing and posting guard dogs, mules, llamas and cows, which are proven deterrents. Part of the proceeds earned by Predator Friendly, which is a nonprofit organization, will be channeled back into field seminars and possibly to help woolgrowers who are interested in growing predator friendly wool, but can't afford to do it.
Finding common ground
The concept was born during an argument over coffee; conservationist Lill Erickson and rancher Dude Tyler were locked in a verbal standoff when they realized that their goals didn't have to be mutually exclusive. Money talks.
Tyler initially was skeptical about whether Predator Friendly could change any attitudes and he admits that he, too, was a tough sell. Growing up a rancher's son in what he proudly calls "the redneck bastion of Sweet Grass County," he knew only one method for handling coyotes: "You blast them," he says. "With predators, I was always taught that if you don't eliminate them, they're going to cost you money. For a long time, I assumed, like many of my neighbors, that the only good coyotes are dead coyotes."
Helping to persuade Tyler was biologist Bob Crabtree, who has studied coyotes for two decades. Crabtree says coyote-killing campaigns, which disrupt the structure of coyote society, may actually spur more predation.
"The rancher thinks that if coyotes are killing sheep, then by killing coyotes you have less predation, but that isn't necessarily the way it works," he said. "Nature is dynamic."
At the same time, environmentalists need to be sympathetic to what sheep and cattle producers are confronting, he adds. "Many environmentalists are not willing to perceive the coyote as a real economic threat to the livestock industry, which it is."
Times are hard for woolgrowers because Congress recently voted to withdraw price supports that have been in place since the end of World War II. In addition, raw wool prices have been in wild fluctuation.
Still, the bureaucracy which runs the sheep industry has been downright hostile toward the Predator Friendly idea and has even subtly threatened participating ranchers with boycotts. "Maybe if some of these growers find a small mill to accommodate them, they could theoretically succeed, but only on a small scale," says Bob Gilbert, secretary-treasurer of the 2,500 member Montana Woolgrowers Association. "It's not going to work for the whole industry."
Gilbert claims there are many areas of the high plains where sheep graze across thousands of acres and no level of preventative measures - short of aggressively killing coyotes - will provide relief. "People can't raise sheep and keep coyotes out," he says.
The opposition to Predator Friendly has at times turned nasty. Designer Owings says she has received threatening, anonymous phone calls.
"I guess I was a little surprised that woolgrowers, especially during tough economic times, would fight this the way they have," she says.
Rancher Becky Weed says most ranchers have listened politely to her pitch about Predator Friendly. But she realizes that full acceptance will only come after the idea is a proven money-maker.
"This is a real chicken-and-egg experiment," says Weed. "We don't want to recruit too many woolgrowers because the market needs to be tested first."
Aiding the cause is a diverse group of supporters. "Anything that makes predators more valuable to the landowners is a positive step in the right direction," says Terry Anderson, a natural-resource economist with the Political Economy Research Center, a conservative think tank in Bozeman. "The key is to make predators an asset instead of a liability."
"I believe this is an opportunity to do the right thing," says Tom Skeele, director of the Predator Project, which generally opposes public-lands livestock grazing.
Together, Skeele and Tyler, who also sits on the board, took part in spring shearing and fleece packing at a sheep ranch in south-central Montana. A short while ago, they would have growled at one another. "Probably the biggest positive benefit is that we have put in the same room people from two incredibly opposite sides of an emotional issue," Tyler said. "We've been able to cast our differences aside, look each other in the eye and say, "What are we going to do about it?" "
For more information about Predator Friendly products, call 1-800/374-9858
* Todd Wilkinson
The writer lives in Bozeman, Montana.