Protecting Goats and Lions

Mountain lions get shot for following their instinct to predate. Protecting our small animals can help save the pumas.

by Brendan Bane

Dec. 9, 2014—Folks in the Santa Cruz Mountains who raise goats, sheep, pigs or other livestock are facing a problem as old as the advent of agriculture: Wild predators occasionally pick off their animals. The conventional solution is to apply for a Fish and Wildlife depredation permit: a temporary license allowing livestock owners to shoot problem animals—sometimes coyotes, but usually mountain lions.

Pumas in Santa Cruz County already face danger from having to cross busy roads including Highway 17. If roaming cats manage to dodge speeding cars, they may also have to dodge bullets.

Biologists argue that better solutions exist, though, and that both farmers and felines can coexist peacefully.

Alison Charter-Smith owns Madrone Coast Farms in Felton, where she raises all manner of livestock from chickens to pigs. She adopted the suggested strategies shortly after losing a sheep to a mountain lion.

“I found her upside-down with a pinky-sized hole in her broken neck,” said Charter-Smith. “She bled out.” Charter-Smith had two choices: she could try forcing implacable nature to bend to her will by killing the mountain lion that killed her sheep, or she could employ sustainable defenses backed by scientists and agriculturists. She chose the latter.

To protect her livestock, Charter-Smith uses a set of tools ranging from simple gadgets like motion-detecting lights to two dutiful Maremma-Abruzzese Sheepdogs, Luke and Leia.

“Having these dogs on the property is the only way I can sleep at night,” says Charter-Smith. “The only reason my animals are safe and able to coexist are because of these dogs.”

Luke and Leia take turns sleeping, and when they suspect danger, one dog marches off to neutralize the threat while the other stays behind to protect the herd.

For their efforts, Madrone Coast Farms was recognized by the conservation group Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network as our county’s first “wildlife friendly” operation just three months ago.

Madrone Coast Farms is only a few short miles from the site of a major corridor for mountain lions, designated by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County as the site of its proposed "puma xing" tunnel under Highway 17. But Charter-Smith hasn’t suffered a loss since she teamed up with Luke and Leia.

Shoot, Shovel and Shut Up
Many livestock owners choose a different path. According to a database maintained by Fish and Wildlife, the agency has issued only 26 depredation permits since 1972, with 15 mountain lions on record as having been killed. But many suspect that the real number is much higher—and that "depredation" may be the leading cause of death in the Santa Cruz Mountains puma population.

Tim Dunbar of the Sacramento-based Mountain Lion Foundation says that's because many rural residents set out to solve the problem by themselves. “There’s a lot of the ‘shoot, shovel and shut up’ mentality,” Dunbar says, and nobody is certain how many die from incidents that go undocumented.

Just like pumas that are killed by cars, those that die via gunshot are mostly males, who have evolved to claim larger home ranges than females, and thus run into trouble more often.

Either way, killing the offending predator is almost always a bad idea, says Mountain Lion Foundation biologist Amy Rodrigues.

“If an established mature male is killed,” says Rodrigues, “multiple younger males move in as they try to claim the open real estate. This sudden and temporary influx of young males can cause a local spike in sightings, complaints and depredation. Young male lions are the group most likely to cause conflicts with people. Younger cats are less experienced at avoiding people, are still perfecting their hunting skills to take down deer and are thus more likely to come into populated areas looking for an easy meal.”

Losing young males is especially harmful to the puma population as a whole. “Although they can be trouble-makers,” Rodrigues says, “these young males are critically important for dispersing genetic material to lions in other areas. Without young males and protected wildlife corridors, populations become isolated and inbred, as we are seeing in Southern California lion populations.”

So what’s the solution? How can agriculturists coexist peacefully with predators of the Santa Cruz Mountains without losing livestock?

How to Protect Livestock and Lions

If you have a few hobby goats or a ranchette…

Folks who keep a handful of chickens or goats for fun need do nothing more than put them in a safe enclosure at night. That can be as simple as a used carport wrapped in chain link fencing, a solution that costs as little as $350. Or you can go full-blown free-standing structure, which can run $1,000 and up. The key is to erect four walls and a roof for your animals to sleep in at night when pumas are on the prowl. The Mountain Lion Foundation offers a livestock-enclosures guide here.

For the larger operation…

If you run a full ranch where nighttime enclosures are either too expensive or unrealistic, get dogs. There are multiple breeds to choose from and few other guard animals can compete with their efficiency. Be warned: these animals are not pets. They must be born with your livestock to bond properly, and their loyalty will lie with the herd, not you. Rest assured, though, your livestock’s safety will be ensured by hundreds of years of selective breeding.

For the in-between…

For farmers who have something in between, perhaps a few acres with outdated structures like old barns, consider securing your buildings with updated equipment. Rebuild missing doors, patch old holes and put your livestock in the newly fortified structures at night.

Alternatives. Frightening devices. Indoor birthing.

Other strategies include installing frightening devices like motion-detecting lights or sprinklers, allowing your livestock to birth indoors (where scents can’t travel to nearby forests), and keeping wildlife at bay by routinely cleaning the property and feeding your livestock indoors.

Warning: Don’t use llamas as guard animals, as they’ll only act as meaty temptation for predators. “Mountain lions just see them as woolly deer,” Dunbar says, “and they’ll go after something that resembles a deer before anything else.”

By choosing to live in lion country, we’d do best to accept that a degree of risk will always be present, Dunbar says. A viable solution to minimize that risk, he suggests, should entail acknowledging it first. “We have to decide as a society whether we’re going to live and coexist peacefully with wildlife or whether we want to wipe it all out," Dundar says. "I think we decided some time ago that we were willing to put up with a certain amount of risk to live with our wildlife.”

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