Flying low over the scrubland, the two men in the airplane scan the ground below. Suddenly, they spot their target: a lone coyote running through the brush. One man aims his rifle out the window. As he shoots, clouds of dust skip up around the coyote. Finally, a fatal blast fells the animal. It collapses to the ground, breathing its last labored gasps of life. For the hunter, the day's job is done.

Why is this coyote being killed? Ranchers and farmers who raise sheep and cattle say that coyotes and other predatory animals (those that kill other animals for food) are literally eating their livelihoods. They report losing millions of dollars each year when their herds are attacked by predators.

How to Cut the Losses?

Gunning down the coyotes is one way ranchers have tried to reduce their livestock losses. Is it effective? Most ranchers agree that not every coyote that roams the range kills sheep. Also, from the air, it is difficult to tell if a killed coyote was the one causing problems.

"But [the fact of the matter is] that when you're having coyote troubles," one sheep farmer told this interviewer, "they all look like they're bad."

Coyotes are not the only wild animals that cause problems for ranchers and farmers. Wolves, bobcats, bears, and mountain lions also eat livestock. These animals are doing what comes naturally — hunting for food. Before ranchers began grazing herds in the vast ranges of the West, these animals hunted whatever was around: deer, buffalo, gopher, and field mice. When settlers arrived, many of these animals were driven out or hunted. At the same time, cattle, sheep, and horses provided new prey (animals hunted for food).

As the U.S. population has grown, people have cleared and settled more land. When this happens, wildlife is forced to move away because its habitat (an area where a creature naturally thrives) has been changed.

Sometimes, animals and humans are able to share the same habitat. Sometimes, animals flee from the spread of houses, highways, and shopping centers. Sometimes, too, as with coyotes and ranchers, humans and wildlife clash.

This problem is not new. In 1915, the U.S. government declared war on predators. Hunters were allowed and encouraged to kill coyotes and other predators. This war was so successful that it nearly wiped out North America's gray wolf population. But the coyote survived. Swift and smart, it has been able to adapt — and flourish — in almost any kind of habitat.

The Coyote's Secret to Survival

What kind of creature is the coyote? Despite its reputation as a loner, the coyote is actually a family animal. Male and female coyotes tend to mate for life. They share the responsibilities of rearing pups, feeding them, and teaching them to hunt. In Native American legends, the coyote is the trickster who knows how to get the best side of a deal. He also is wise, and often teaches people family values.

Part of the coyote's knack for survival is its ability to find new food sources. Coyotes can be found throughout the U.S., from New England pastures to wide-open western ranges to the suburbs of Los Angeles. Everywhere they go, their presence is felt.

According to the American Sheep Industry Association, sheep producers are losing $49 million — and about 500,000 sheep — a year to predators. Coyotes are responsible for about 64 percent of the kill. Cattle ranchers also lose livestock to coyotes. In suburban areas where coyotes have spread, reports of missing dogs and cats are on the rise.

Owners of small farms are among the hardest hit. Don Miller, an Ohio farmer, has had more sleepless nights than he cares to count. In his 30 years of raising sheep, Miller often has had to deal with animals, including dogs, attacking his flocks. But none has been a tougher foe than the coyote. Coyotes have foiled Miller's attempts to guard his sheep and proven nearly impossible to catch. One year, Miller lost approximately 50 adult sheep — 10 percent of his flock — to coyote kills.

"That kind of loss could put you out of business," he told this interviewer, "and it's not just the money. It's the mental pressure as well. It's the constant worrying in the middle of the night: Are the coyotes eating the sheep? A lot of people just quit after a while."

What Can Ranchers Do?

What have people who raise sheep and cattle done to protect their herds? In the past, they have resorted to whatever means possible: setting traps, shooting coyotes, and tossing poisonous gas cartridges into coyote dens, which suffocates the pups. But today, conservation groups are pressuring livestock owners to use nonlethal (nonfatal) methods. These include guard dogs, fences, sirens (to startle the coyotes), and safety practices, such as keeping sheep together at night and bringing the ewes (female sheep) in when they are giving birth.

Truman Julian, a Wyoming rancher who moves about 9,000 sheep across 200 miles of range each year, has used nonlethal methods with some success. "We have fewer losses with guard dogs," he told JS. "But coyotes are smart. They work in teams. One will distract the dog, and the other will come around from behind for the sheep kill." Susan Hagood of the Humane Society says that some states, such as Kansas, have reduced livestock losses using nonlethal methods. "Ideally," she says, "you try every nonlethal method possible before eliminating [killing] the coyote. And when you have to do that, it should be done the most humane way possible."

Unfortunately, Hagood says, nonlethal methods are not always used. Approximately 96,000 coyotes were killed by federal trappers in 1991. This figure does not include the animals that were killed by private hunters or ranchers. Coyotes are not endangered — Hagood estimates that their total U.S. population may reach "well into the millions." But, she says, too many coyotes are being needlessly killed.

"We have to recognize that the animals are there because we've taken away from their habitat," Hagood says. "We must do what we can to minimize conflict."

Can humans and animals find a way to coexist? One thing is sure: Coyotes are here to stay.

"One time, I was raking hay, and a coyote came in the field with me," says Don Miller. "I didn't have a gun, so I couldn't do anything. She was milking pups and had the little ones with her. She stayed in the field till she caught a groundhog, and then she brought it by me as if she was proud of her catch.

"I hate what the coyotes do to my sheep and what they do to my livelihood," he adds. "But you have to admire these animals."

This article first appeared in Junior Scholastic, April 30, 1993