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Mark Twain once described the coyote as "a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery."
Twain obviously didn't have a handle on the canine's vitality, treachery and extraordinary talent for survival. The coyote has not only persevered, but it has also thrived in the face of a century of intense pressure.
The fight against the stockmen's major foe has taken many forms through the years. Coyotes have been penned, trapped, snared, gunned down from the air and, of course, poisoned. They've had their dens dug up to kill the pups. Nevertheless, coyotes are having a heyday of sorts. In the Northeast, where coyotes never roamed before this century, they are now firmly established and are being regarded as a threat. In the West they are enjoying a glorious renaissance. According to the United States Department of Agriculture ( USDA), there are now an estimated 1.4 million of the cunning canines, and they inhabit part of every state but Hawaii.
Why? "In 1972 most uses of toxicants were banned by executive order and subsequent rulings by the EPA," says Jeff Green, wildlife biologist for the USDA's Animal Damage Control Program in Denver. "Environmental consciousness and public sentiment favored using and finding more innocuous techniques for reducing predator damage to livestock." Innocuous techniques aren't always the most effective techniques. Last year, "predator damage" in the U.S. amounted to nearly 500,000 killed sheep, and it is believed more than two thirds of that number were done in by coyotes.
Sheep are not too bright. For instance, if a herding dog makes a mistake, an entire flock can go tumbling off a mountainside. Furthermore, sheep are not too brave. When coyotes are hunting, they will ravage scores of lambs while the ewes just stand by in agony and bleat. Last year coyotes cost American livestock producers an estimated $47.4 million.
What the USDA has suggested as one coyote-curbing alternative to poisons, and what many stockmen have employed, is an increased use of guard animals. They don't use just the traditional dogs, either. Llamas have been deployed and, recently, burros, too.
Coyotes are neophobic—afraid of new things—and if a rancher exploits this fear of the unknown he can afford newborn livestock a few vital weeks to get bigger, stronger and up-and-running. In seeking something strange to scare the coyotes, what could be better than a big-headed, skinny-legged, sad-eyed donkey? Furthermore, this cousin of the horse has a temperament that suits it for a role as guardian. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which sometimes rounds up excess wild horses on public lands by running them into canyons with helicopters and then corralling them, does not use the same method with burros because the inquisitive and stalwart beasts would just stand their ground and watch the whirlybirds go by. Then, too, after the scarecrow factor of burros wears off and the coyotes creep closer, the donkeys use other intrinsic talents that repel predators. They make horrible noises, and since they're bigger than coyotes they just stomp the intruders.
Nanci Falley is a fifth-generation Texan who runs Rancho San Francisco—"named after the saint, not the city"—near Lockhart, Texas. She has 190 acres, comprising four pastures of grass and mesquite brush, with a few oak trees. She keeps geese, chickens and goats, all of which are vulnerable to carnivores. She also has two dozen breeding donkeys that produce an average of 16 jacks and jennets annually. Half of the burros are sold as guards, the rest as pets. Falley gets $150 for each male baby and $300 for a female. A pregnant jennet fetches $500.
Falley has raised donkeys for 20 years and believes about 85% of the ones she has seen would be good guards. "Donkeys have instincts to herd, and a natural dislike for dogs and coyotes," she says. "When isolated from other donkeys and put into a flock of sheep when young, they get lonesome, bond easily and develop protective instincts toward their flock." She says that one burro guard can handle a flock of 75 to 100 sheep in a fenced pasture. "They work great there. I think donkeys need to establish territory."
Falley and other ranchers who have seen it happen say that when a coyote approaches, the sheep line up behind their donkey as it brays, kicks and even charges the predator. "Most donkeys will flee in terror from bears and mountain lions," says John Conter of Billings, Mont., who breeds guard burros and is president of the American Council of Spotted Asses, an organization dedicated, believe it or not, to the promotion of donkeys with spots. "But there is no doubt donkeys will protect sheep by scaring off coyotes."