When Man Becomes Prey

Cat Urbigkit’s newest, When Man Becomes Prey, is extremely relevant to the matter of the home- invader coyote below.* I rather thoughtlessly quipped “Ask Val Geist” because I have been corresponding with him on such matters for years, and the old zoologist’s theories about too- bold urban predators are bedrock.

But Cat is a pastoralist and writer whose life and work are inextricably interwoven with– I won’t say “urban”, but modern predators. She deals more with coyotes (and bears and wolves and lions) than anyone I know, and she is dedicated to finding “win- win” solutions to problems most people don’t know exist. She has now written the first text on how people in our civilization can co- exist with big predators.

I hadn’t realized that her book was not getting the attention that it should; perhaps it is too biological or realistic for the kind of pop Greenies who think that wolves are spiritual, and too accepting of the predator’s role for traditional “shoot, shovel, and shut up” varmint killers. The more loss for them, especially the first; Prey is THE text on the dangers of taking too naive a view of these wonderful but not entirely benign “new” and ancient neighbors. Even the most  pro- predator advocate must realize that, if enough people are attacked by any carnivore, it will lose its protection.

This sounds as calm as Cat is when she discusses the potential problems on the wild/ human “interface”, so let me reprint what I wrote to her a while back when she asked me for a blurb:

“Jeez, you write a revolutionarily sane book that goes against all trends in the world outside of Africa, takes brisk notice of the stupidity of rules made by sentimentalists in cities who think that all animals can be reasoned with (you don’t HAVE to get gory to elicit the horror as that poor woman gets eaten for half an hour because she thought Timothy Treadwell was a reliable guide to grizzlies), remind people that not only will coyotes eat your dog but, just as happily, your kids (and show why the first publicly eaten kid will be in California, where runners should just sacrifice a woman a year to the Cat Goddess); and why even if that happens the residents of Boulder will give their dogs and children to lions rather than allow hunting or GUNS to be used in their peaceful city (and I have read details of the kid who got et, and it wasn’t pretty)…

“And all this all without blinking, in a serious tone that still can be devastatingly if blackly funny when you come up with predictions of what will happen if idiots stumble on making the  same mistakes (“… and the idiot’s twice- burned finger/ goes wabbling back to the fire…”**)

“You expect me to sum it up in three sentences???”

So I took one more.

“Cat Urbigkit is a scholar and a rancher and above all a writer, a woman who has lived with her flocks in the wildest ranges we have left, watching and admiring, and sometimes without rancor killing the great predators who share her home. In When Man Becomes Prey, she documents the increasing conflict as animals big enough to eat your pets, your children, and even you, come to live in close contact with people who do not believe that anything beautiful can be dangerous. In this lucid, sane book she brings her years of experience and study together to suggest the unthinkable: that if we live in intimate contact with big predators we must regain our ability to scare them, the heritage of a primate who only survived by knowing that when predators think you are harmless, you will become food. That hunting may both preserve predators and make the wilderness safer for humans may be counterintuitive, but it is as true now as it was in the Pleistocene.”

Eventually, our big predators, through both learning and the elimination of aggressive individuals, may behave more like the ones in Europe. Ours MAY be less aggressive than those in Africa; if so it may be, as Valerius Geist suggested, due to the ubiquity of firearms on our frontier (Africans and Siberians generally were far less well- armed than our pioneers and frontiersmen).

But we aren’t there yet, not when runners are eaten by lions, students by wolves, and Canadian folksingers by coyotes. If you like predators, enjoy the wild, and believe that we must find ways to live with more of it around, read this book. It is also a treasury of good up- to- date natural history backed by real- life experience, and full of first- rate photos, most by Cat. Buy it!

* People have been asking how it got in. A door was slightly ajar– but what non- acclimated coyote would test doors like a burglar?

** Kipling, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”


Our last winter predator is an adult male Coopers hawk in beautiful plumage, and despite my admiration for his kind I hope he moves on to nest– I don’t relish keeping my pigeons in for very long. He allowed me to get even closer, but this was the best I could do; the photo is not good, because I was standing in bright sunlight that turned the viewfinder into a mirror. Still, he is plainly visible atop the dog house, eating a blue bar homer cross as big as he is. I think it will enlarge.

Prey base decline

We’ve noticed that our western Wyoming jackrabbit population has crashed in the last few years, and that makes us wonder about cohabitating wildlife and livestock species, and what the impact will be to those animals.

With so few jacks last winter, our wintering golden eagles didn’t stick around long because there was little for them to eat. I had heard that when the jackrabbit population crashes, livestock depredations increase. That certainly seems to be the case this spring.

The Farson farm community south of us is field after field of rich alfalfa, and during the peak of the jackrabbit population, it’s where I go to photograph large groups of jacks as they congregate and spar together. Now it’s unusual to see even a single jackrabbit in the valley. But within the last week or so, there have been at least 13 newborn calves killed by coyotes. With their major prey base unavailable, the coyotes have turned to calves. Both the photos with this post were taken around Farson, just a few miles from each other. The jackrabbit congregation was taken in 2008, when the population was near its peak. The coyote in the image is typical for this area.

We are due to start lambing in about two weeks, so in preparation for that, I’ve had an aerial gunner flying our lambing ground and shooting coyotes from that range. Our dogs have been working overtime to keep the sheep protected, and have been successful in doing it, but I’m not willing to have my lambs start getting killed before I do something. On Friday, while the airplane was working our lambing pasture, Jim took Hud the herding dog with him to another pasture just to the north. Jim stood in the middle of the dry irrigation ditch and blew on a jackrabbit-in-distress mouth call, while Hud dashed around in the sagebrush nearby. The first animal to respond to the call was a curious doe pronghorn antelope that took a steady look at Jim and walked away. The next responder was a coyote that keyed on oblivious Hud and was racing for him when Jim shot the coyote in its tracks.

Before we started gunning coyotes in the last month or so, we had coyotes coming along our back fence line during the day, in the hay meadow across the highway, and even down at the end of our driveway. Two of the guardian dogs have been working themselves ragged at night in chasing the coyotes, but they are getting so tired and sore-footed they aren’t able to catch and kill the problem coyotes at this point. Fortunately, the oldest and wisest of the guardians is Luv’s Girl, who always remains with the sheep while the others chase the coyotes. She knows that her time is better spent amid the herd. Between the dogs and the three burros, the sheep are well-protected, but that’s no guarantee that a predator won’t end up having some success. It’s our job to try and prohibit that, but this year we may have our hands full.

Sometimes the worst predator problem we have comes from one of the smallest predators – the red fox. We have one on our place this year that Rena spends far too much time and energy chasing. The little bugger is terribly fast, and there is no way that big dog is ever going to catch it. The fox is no danger to our adult sheep, but to baby lambs, that’s another story. A mama fox feeding pups at a den site can be one clever lamb-snatcher.