COVER STORY: Hunting the hunters
LARIMORE, N.D. -- Livestock predators are an unwelcome fact of life for many ranchers, particularly where coyotes are active. Unlike wolves, these year-around hunters can work in packs, in pairs or singly, making wholesale killing raids on poultr...
LARIMORE, N.D. -- Livestock predators are an unwelcome fact of life for many ranchers, particularly where coyotes are active.
Unlike wolves, these year-around hunters can work in packs, in pairs or singly, making wholesale killing raids on poultry flocks and on herds of sheep, goats and young cattle.
Their numbers and the number of costly attacks they make on livestock in eastern North Dakota's Red River Valley appear to be increasing.
John Paulson, supervisor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services in Bismarck, N.D., says coyote predation is at least partly to blame for the reduced number of deer fawns sighted by hunters this year.
"Our coyote numbers are certainly coming back," he says.
Sarcoptic mange had been going through the fox and coyote populations, starting about 10 or 15 years ago, he says. But now it seems to have run its course.
"So our coyote numbers are coming back pretty strong," he says.
Also known as the American jackal or prairie wolf, the coyote is a canine predator found throughout North America and Central America. It evolved in North America, unlike its cousin, the gray wolf, which migrated from Europe and Asia. Coyotes are found all over the Lower 48 states, Alaska and about a half of Canada. Nineteen different species of coyote are recognized, 16 of which live in the U.S. and Canada.
Typical coyote packs are made up of six closely related adults, yearlings and young. They generally are smaller than wolf packs.
Coyotes are thought to be mostly nocturnal, but often can be seen during daylight hours.
They once were diurnal or daytime hunters, according to research, but have developed more nocturnal hunting behavior since faced with human competition.
Coyotes will dig their own burrows, though they often take over groundhog or badger burrows. Territorial ranges can be as broad as 12 miles in diameter, centered on the den, and travel occurs along fixed trails.
They flourish especially well wherever wolves are not found. In North Dakota, they have been keeping wildlife specialists busy, trying to defend livestock herds. Though the wildlife specialists generally are successful wherever they go, they are spread pretty thin.
"I've got nine guys in the field that I supervise across the state of North Dakota," Paulson says. "They'll be going out and working with ranchers where we have historic losses."
One of Paulson's guys in the field is wildlife specialist Dean Janzen. He is a 26-year-old hunter and trapper from Devils Lake, N.D.
He grew up hunting and doing a little trapping "as a hobby," and tributes his parents for much of what he knows about wildlife.
He graduated from North Dakota State University in Fargo in 2004 with a degree in biology and then hired by USDA as a wildlife specialist. He says his hunting and trapping background helped him land the job.
His first assignment was based in Jamestown, N.D., where he worked on goose and blackbird management.
"It was just going to different landowners who have blackbirds eating sunflowers or geese eating crops off in the spring of the year," he says. "After that, I went into aerial gunning full time, and did that for three years."
Aerial gunning put him and his shotgun in the back seat of a Piper Super Cub, a purposefully slow single-engine airplane, to run down coyotes, based in Bismarck.
He was re-assigned to the Inkster area in northeastern North Dakota 18 months ago. There, he is responsible for predation issues in nine counties. He says Wyoming assigns two wildlife specialists to each county.
Not surprisingly, Janzen already is a busy man, but now is seeing coyote activity surging.
"From last year to this year, even, it's a considerable jump," he says. "Of course, it's not in the areas that I've been controlling."
He says that there is a considerable decrease in activity in those areas.
"The new areas that I'm getting are all over the place," he says, adding that none of them are adjacent to any of his perennial control areas.
Janzen's work usually starts with a phone call. A rancher in his area reports predation on his sheep and needs his help. Response time is important.
"It's usually pretty quick," he says. "I'm on call all the time, whether it be coyotes or beaver or whatever."
He makes arrangements to meet the rancher at his house or out where the predation took place.
"If it's a calf or a sheep or a lamb that's lying there dead, we do a necropsy on it," he says. "We check puncture wounds, where the puncture wounds are at."
A common wound site is along the sides of the prey animals' throat. Once he's verified that the animal was downed by a coyote, he assesses the overall situation to decide which of his tools to use.
"We'll look in our toolbox, see what we've got," he says. "We check it right away."
He then gets the landowner to sign a trespass agreement, which can cover any situation, including aerial gunning.
Janzen uses just about everything but an airplane. For coyotes, he's got four options; foothold traps, snares, cyanide and rifle fire.
Traps and snares
With several options to choose from, his selection often depends more on conditions than anything else.
"It depends on the lay of the land, the temperature outside and the weather," Janzen says. "If I can get into the ground, there's traps and there's snares, which I can use anytime of the year. With foothold traps, it's basically putting them around the area and catching them that way," he says. "They're offset with smooth jaws, so there's no teeth on them to harm the animal itself. They've come quite a ways since back in the day."
For snares, he likes to set up funnels with twigs and branches to encourage the coyotes to go into the snare. He anchors the cable to a nearby tree or bush trunk, then hangs the noose about 10 inches above the ground so it's right about where the coyote's head is when he's hunting. He uses Amberg locks.
"The base of their ears is where you want it to drop down at, and it just tightens up and tightens up," he says.
Another snaring tactic makes use of a hole in a pasture fence line that the coyote already has used. A loop of wire hung right over the hole in a welded wire fence is nearly impossible for a hunting coyote to see.
One of the more unusual tools he can use as wildlife specialist is the M-44 sodium cyanide gun. This is a spring-loaded ejector gun, which is set to fire up out of the ground. Janzen says the M-44s work the best this time of year. They will work in the summer months also, but it's mainly a wintertime tool.
"If coyotes are killing sheep in a pasture, what we'll do is we'll pull the sheep out of that pasture, and we put carcasses of either the sheep or road kill to draw them into the area," he says.
Janzen places the gun within 30 feet of the dead carcass -- his "bait station."
He inserts a small sodium cyanide capsule, about an inch long and a half-inch around, into the injector and then screws that onto the end of the gun tube. The locking pin and trigger mounts over the top of that.
"Then we lure the top of this, so that when a coyote comes up to our bait station, they also smell this," he says.
Wrapped around the head is some vet wrap, tied down with dental floss and coated with a thick layer of pungent bait made from rotting jackrabbit meat.
He drills a narrow hole into the ground and sets the tube into it, leaving the top portion above ground.
The carcass draws the coyote in close enough so he notices the scented lure on the gun. The bait secured on top of the gun triggers the coyote's instincts to try and tear it away.
"So they'll come up and, sure enough, it tastes good, so they're going to take it off from that area," he says. "They might paw at it, but what they'll do is just pull up on it."
This motion releases the firing pin into the sodium cyanide capsule and shoots the poison straight up into the back of the coyote's mouth. The cyanide does its job quickly, he says.
Call and shoot
Janzen's fourth option is calling and shooting. This tactic works year-around too, but there are certain times of the year when it works exceptionally well.
"Like when they're denning," he says. "The 15th of February is their peak breeding season, so it would be roughly April 15 when they start going down the holes. Then it's usually right in that mid-May area when the pups start getting bigger and they start getting real territorial. That's when calling and shooting works incredibly well."
He says he and his counterparts in the other North Dakota counties use call and shoot regularly.
"It is very effective because you're focusing in on one spot within just a few hundred yards of a kill," he says. "You can call in a pair of coyotes and kill them, and be done with the whole thing."
He uses a GA Precision-modified .308 Winchester. Mounted on it are a Leopold Mark IV scope, an Advanced Armament suppressor and a tripod. He fires 155-grain Lapua bullets, affording him an everyday working range up to about 250 yards, but he has made kills at nearly triple that range.
For position, he likes high terrain, like a rock pile or dirt mound where he can see farther. But he also will work in a group of trees, provided he can draw the wild canines to him.
Janzen makes different calls, including that of a distressed rabbit. He also has Cody, a small yellow Labrador retriever who doubles as his traveling companion and his decoy dog.
"She does a lot of the grunt work," he says. "She does come in handy."
The reason is that coyotes naturally are going to be keen on picking up dog scents and sounds, so Cody will go out and draw their attention away from his master while, at the same time, drawing them in toward his rifle.
It is a successful team.
As winter gives way to spring, new issues begin to gain in importance. Among the most important is the disease monitoring work they do with coyote carcasses.
"We do use them as a sentinel for" bovine tuberculosis, Janzen says. "We test coyotes as a sentinel because they eat deer and they're also in the same general vicinity as cattle in this area. The transfer from a deer to a cow in there so we're picking up on that, too."
Each spring, he removes certain lymph nodes and takes blood samples out of killed coyotes and sends them in for testing at a USDA laboratory. Along with tuberculosis, they are checking for signs of botulism and tularemia.
He also takes the time to keep his controlled areas quiet.
"After we get done with an area, we'll come back in the spring of the year, and we'll put out maintenance devices --
M-44s or snares -- so it does not happen again in the future," he says. "We'll keep on doing that, year after year after year, even if you don't have a kill."
He uses M-44s to keep denning pairs out of an area, and will sometimes drop in and do a call and shoot, just keep his "hot spots" cooled down.
Also about this time, a whole new batch of wildlife control issues begins to crop up. Number one is beaver control. The dam builders fell important trees in shelterbelt country and block waterways necessary to field drainage. Janzen will be applying population control and blowing their dams with chemical charges. He says that beaver make up about 90 percent of his summer work.
Then there are the geese and the jackrabbits, the former of which are safety hazards at airports and can strip down emerging crops, and the latter of which can damage expensive lawns at golf courses. And when the sunflower heads fill, there will be blackbird control to think about.
As a wildlife specialist in North Dakota's farm and ranch country, it seems unlikely that Dean Janzen will ever run out of work. In fact, he says he regularly turns down suggestions from above to take some vacation time.
"There's things that need doing," he says.