Marin Independent Journal

Coyotes Get A Reprieve
West Marin ranchers cut damage from predators the humane way

November 31, 2005
Keri Brenner, Staff Writer

A humane program aimed at combating coyotes on West Marin rangeland has worked so well that lethal devices are unnecessary, officials said.

Marin’s novel “holistic” livestock protection program – the only one of its kind in the state and possibly the nation – doesn’t involve trapping or killing predators, county agriculture officials said.

Instead, a mix of guard dogs, guard llamas, electric fences, strobes, radio devices and sheep bells keep livestock losses under control.

“We’ve struck a medium here with the non-lethal program,” said longtime Tomales sheep rancher Bill Jensen. “It’s a win-win deal for everybody.”

The $40,000-per-year Marin County Livestock Protection Program is up for a five-year renewal from the county starting in the 2006-07 budget, Marin Agricultural Commissioner Stacy Carlsen told county supervisors.

Carlsen said the five-year effort has resulted in an average annual loss of 2.2 percent among the 6,700 sheep in the program, compared to a more than 5 percent average annual loss under a previous trapping arrangement.

That bodes well for quashing skepticism about using progressive livestock protection techniques, he said.

“I know this is the agricultural equivalent of peacock feathers and hot tubs,” quipped Marin Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who represents West Marin on the county board. “Stacy’s colleagues in the ag community thought he had buckled his Birkenstocks too tight.”

Money for the program helps ranchers build electric fences, install strobes and radio devices or purchase guard animals. It also helps with veterinarian bills and allows ranchers to stay in business, said Tomales sheep producer Joe Pozzi, wool buyer for Pure Grow Wool Products.

“I don’t see this in other counties,” Pozzi told supervisors this week.

Pozzi’s ranch is among 18 in the program, out of 29 ranches operating in Marin. The 18 ranch participants are equipped with a total 22 guard dogs, 19 guard llamas, 24.6 miles of electric fencing and 16 strobe and radio devices.

Supervisor Susan Adams said she would be happy to entertain a budget bid from Carlsen for another five years.

“This is why the royals are interested in visiting here,” Adams said, referring to last weekend’s stop in West Marin by Prince Charles of Walesand his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, to see examples of organic
farming and “green” businesses.

In 2000, Carlsen created the one-of-a-kind Marin program following bitter conflict among animal protection activists, environmental groups and ranchers over a trap-and-kill program run by the U.S. Department of

That effort not only trapped coyotes using non-humane strangulation neck snares, poisons and aerial gunning, but also inadvertently killed skunks, bobcats, wolves, raccoons, foxes and the occasional family dog.

“I know of no other community in the country that has a program like Marin in wildlife protection,” said Camilla Fox, director of wildlife programs for the Sacramento-based Animal Protection Institute. “The beauty of it is that we now have almost five years of data that demonstrates the success of the program.”

Jensen, who has more than 600 head of old English breed black and white sheep on 590 acres, has three guard dogs, two guard llamas and seven or eight miles of electrified fencing.

The sheep wear bells at night to alert the guard dogs, who wake up and scare the coyotes away.

The llamas scare the coyotes with their large and aggressive presence, Jensen said. Only one male gelding llama is used per flock so the llama bonds with the sheep herd and not other llamas.

Jensen said he loses an average of 25 to 30 sheep annually, mostly to coyotes. That is on par with earlier losses, but he said he sees the stable number as a success, given the growing coyote population.

“The coyote is a cunning coward,” said Jensen, whose extended family has farmed thousands of acres in the Tomales area for more than a century. “They come into your field and they want to kill something, but if something bothers them – a guard dog or llama decides to chase them, or they get a shock from an electric fence – they just leave and go somewhere else.”

Under the program, ranchers also have the right to shoot coyotes with rifles if they see them infiltrating their flocks.

“Stacy Carlsen and the Marin County supervisors have done a yeoman’s job on this program,” Jensen said. “They’ve gone out of their way to make sure there’s some tangible results.”

Although losses vary from ranch to ranch and from year to year, on balance, the program has enabled Jensen and his colleagues to remain in agriculture and hang on to their land. Jensen’s 240-acre ranch and an adjacent 350-acre Mitchell family ranch – which Jensen leases – are part of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, which offers a one-time compensation to ranchers and farmers in exchange for keeping their land in agriculture in perpetuity.

Some of Jensen’s ranchland has never been bought or sold and was acquired by the family through homesteading in 1849.

“We just want to hang on and keep it going because we like living out here,” said Jensen, 53. “I’ve got kids, and I would like to be able to give it all to them.”