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Sacred Heart sheep rancher worried about upcoming coyote hunt

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SACRED HEART -- For nearly 30 years, John and Julie Essame have raised sheep on rugged lands along the Minnesota River south of Sacred Heart.

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Their farm is set snugly against a backdrop of large granite outcrops, dense stands of cedar and river bottom woods. It has the look of a farm on the edge of a wilderness, and the sounds of one, too.

Coyotes yip and howl after night fall, and make no pretense of hiding their presence. They're sometimes spotted along a creek just over a rise from the farm, and the stealthy predators have even ventured into the farm yard.

But for the last 15 years, not one sheep has been lost to predation by coyotes.

That's why John Essame writes of "carrying a knot'' in his stomach ever since he learned of plans for a competitive coyote hunt to be held in western Renville County next weekend. He's hoping the hunters will give his farm a wide berth, by miles at the least.

In a written narrative and an interview, he explained why a sheep farmer would oppose a hunt for a predator that would seem his very nemesis. He fears that the random killing of coyotes could destroy the security he has provided his flock for 15 years.

The indiscriminate hunting of coyotes does not serve to manage their population, he warns.

Instead, the random hunting of coyotes could trigger events that would disrupt the balance that now exists on his farm. "My biggest fear with the hunt is that something is going to happen to make our dogs ineffective,'' he said.

Livestock guard dogs provide the security that Essame's flock enjoys. The dogs mingle freely with the sheep, and bark out warnings whenever a coyote or other predator shows itself. The European breed dogs will aggressively defend the sheep.

But Essame is well aware that this truce is a two-way street. Unless they trouble the sheep, the coyotes are left alone.

The coyotes that roam the river bottoms and prairie around the farm comprise what he describes as a "stable" population.

Coyote packs, or families, are made up of an alpha pair -- the male and female top dogs, plus a few other adults and each year's pups, he writes. The alpha pair bonds for life, and except on rare occasions, only the alpha female has pups.

"We believe that, over the last 15 years, we have created a stable relationship with our surrounding coyote packs,'' writes Essame. "They have learned that they will have to get past our guard dogs to prey on sheep and lambs, so new generations of coyotes do not include them in their hunting and feeding behavior.''

It's an order that can be easily disrupted. If an alpha coyote is killed, the pack is immediately destabilized. Power struggles can split a pack. Other, adult coyotes can be drawn into the area to take over a pack or create their own, he said.

Essame knows from experience how it can be. There was a time when his flock lost 20 to 25 lambs every year, a major economic blow.

The problems started in 1990. Instead of winter lambing, the Essame's began putting the ewes and sheep on pasture for lambing in April. As they learned only too well: "Coyotes take livestock because we make it easy for them.''

They tried protecting the sheep with a llama and even donkeys, but had no success until they acquired two, trained livestock guard dogs from Montana.

"The loss of lambs stopped immediately,'' he wrote.

Essame is active in the state's sheep industry and served as an instructor on sheep production at Ridgewater College in Willmar. He believes there are maybe no more than 10 or 12 other sheep producers in the state relying on livestock guard dogs. It takes an unusual discipline to manage the dogs, he explained. They must be raised with the sheep and identify more with the flock than their handler.

Coyotes normally rely on a diet of small rodents, insects, fruit, and berries, as well as road kill, the remains of field dressed deer and livestock births. They serve a useful purpose by keeping in check the fox and animals that prey on nesting waterfowl and upland birds, like pheasants.

Essame is convinced that the coyotes around his farm essentially keep their own numbers in balance with the natural food supply in their home range.

If a significant number of coyotes are killed, and consequently there is a temporary over-supply of food, the coyotes are biologically programmed to respond quickly. "This leads to higher ovulation rates in the breeding females, larger litters, and increased pup survival,'' writes Essame.

This brings with it the risk that the coyotes will outgrow the natural food supply. He fears that hungry coyotes are more likely to risk preying on the sheep, even if it means challenging the guard dogs.

He is quick to point out that he has no qualms with hunting. But when it comes to coyotes, he would rather see a selective approach.

There is a role for hunters willing to pursue coyotes that prey on livestock. This takes hunters willing to learn the ways of their prey and able to track and call them.

Group and other hunts that randomly flush coyotes from their cover risk killing the wrong animals. Explained Essame: "While it is often said that the only good coyote is a dead coyote, the truth is that the only good coyote is one that doesn't take livestock.''

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