Domenigoni Ranch, experts in coyote-killing

California Senate Bill 1143 would ban the use of traps in the state of California

— In mid-February, Bug, our neighbor's orange-yellow cat, disappeared. Last week, a woman in a Jeep Cherokee pulled up in front of our house. She asked me if I had seen Ivan, a black cat with a white diamond on his chest. He'd been missing for a week, and there had been reports of coyotes on the undeveloped bluff across the street. She left a number for me to call if I saw Ivan.

We fear the worst, but our neighbors do have the cold comfort of knowing they are not alone: 261 coyote complaints received "operational assistance" from Animal Damage Control, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in fiscal year 1996, according to district supervisor John Turman. I spoke with Turman on the phone, and he described adc's method for dealing with coyotes.

"We use a soft-catch trap. It's a rubber-lined foot-hold trap, the only approved trap in California. Near the trap is bait and a lure or scent. You can use coyote urine; behaviorally, they're similar to a dog. We use meat-type baits, usually more rotted stuff. In certain situations, we can use neck snares where coyotes are coming under fences. It's always lethal. We don't relocate coyotes."

Coyotes do not live on cats alone. John, who raises geese in Ramona, remembers: "I used to keep the geese loose, and of course, the coyotes jumped the fence and came in at two o'clock in the morning and killed as many as five a night. At $20 apiece, it doesn't take long to run into a lot of money. So I have pens that I lock them up in every night. As a rule, the coyotes won't go into an enclosed shed - they have a kind of phobia about going into a building. But the raccoons, hell, they'll go right in there.

"Legally, you can't do much," admits John. "You can't shoot a gun within city limits. Illegally, you have to deal with what comes. If you catch the coyote in there, you have to shoot it. It's like the guys up in Wyoming, when they brought the wolves back into Yellowstone, and the wolves started killing their sheep. They said, 'You just have to do the three s's.' People asked, 'What's that?' They said, 'Shoot, shovel, and shut up.' It's kind of a touchy situation."

Coyotes and raccoons are not the only sources of livestock damage. There is also the problem of dogs, both domestic and those that have been dumped into the wild. "We find that most of the dogs causing problems out on the ranches are truly feral dogs," claims Turman. Maybe so, but Steve Zeigler, who raises sheep for 4H on a small lot in Ramona, says otherwise. "What really affects us here more than anything is local dogs." Coyotes nab an occasional chicken but don't pose much of a threat to his lambs because he keeps them in pens while they're small. Dogs, on the other hand, don't mind molesting full-grown ewes. "They get to playing with the sheep, and all of a sudden, it's more than play. They come up and bite the back of the leg, so you end up with a lot of punctures. Anybody that's seen what a dog could do to a sheep, you'd remember it. It's not pretty."

What to do? "Legally, we can shoot the dog if it's harassing livestock, but I have too many neighbors, and that's not good. Animal Damage Control has come out here and provided me with live animal traps, a big box, two foot by four foot. You bait it with something, and when you catch the dog, Animal Damage Control comes out and takes it. I imagine they try to locate the owner."

Zeigler has also procured a llama. "I got it this year for a predator-avoidance system. Llamas are supposed to be great for running with sheep. They don't deal with dogs and coyotes at all. I guess they run them down and stomp them with their front feet." The llama's name is Elvis, and his front feet look like they belong on a bird of prey - the two prongs of the hooves curve into near talons. Zeigler grants that his troubles with coyotes are limited because of his location. His land is fenced, not open range, and he is surrounded by neighbors and dogs. "I don't think this is a place they would choose. If I were on the outskirts of the county, I'd probably have more problems."

A little ways over the county line, out north Route 79 past Temecula, the flat stretches between the clumps of mountains ripple up into rolling, heathery hills. A right on Holland Road takes you to Domenigoni Ranch, where sun-wizened Valentine Cenoz winters his sheep. A friend, whom Valentine preferred not to name, is with him. I ask how they deal with varmints, and his friend immediately goes on the defensive. "What's a farmer to do?" Valentine laments. "You have preserve areas next to your ranch, where everything is protected, and pretty soon, the coyote is not afraid of anything. Coyote is not an endangered species. Valentine is on private land, protecting his asset. The coyote is robbing his asset, so he gets rid of [the coyote], within the means of 'the law.' "

Why the quotation marks? "If you poison," explains Valentine's friend, "put poison meat out, you have to have permission from Fish and Game. I don't know what they require now because the law changes so much."

Valentine breaks in. "I'm going to tell you, no matter it's against the law or not. When I see [a coyote], I bring a spotlight, I chase it, I shoot it with a .22. I shoot the ones I catch in action. With the coyotes and the stray dogs, I lost 450 head last year. I think it's time to start controlling a little bit, because I don't think these things come before people. I always think people are first." For Valentine, "people" includes property, like his $75 to $120 sheep.

The coyotes he can kill. What about the dogs? Again, Valentine's friend answers first. "You're dealing with somebody's pet. They buy five, ten acres; the dog can run everywhere. Pretty soon the dog joins up with another dog, and another dog, and they run all night. They tear up his sheep. They kill just to kill. They get into my cattle when the cows have just calved, try to get the calf. I'll shoot the son of a guns and just leave them where they lay. But if I miss one and wound him, and he goes home, and they find out I've done it, they'll probably throw me in jail. And that's not right."

Zeigler said a sheep that's been chewed up by dogs is not a pretty sight. Valentine elaborates. "There can be pieces of skin in 10, maybe 15 places missing. The belly is out, you can see the liver, and they stay alive. Not only one; you'll find, a lot of times, a bunch. It makes you sick to see."

Valentine's friend mentioned that dogs will go after cattle. Glenn Drown, a big, slow-talking part owner of Tulloch Ranch near Santa Ysabel, agrees. He says it's more of a problem with sheep, but "one of our ranches over on Interstate 8, out near La Posta, there's sometimes dog problems out there. More so with the younger calves. They just run them; they chase them around, bite at them, tear them up. Then you have to destroy the animal, and a calf can be worth $350 to $550 at the time we sell it."

Later in the conversation, I ask how methods of dealing with varmints have changed. "The thing that has probably changed is you just don't discuss what you do. Before, it wasn't a problem; people didn't get squeamish if you shot a stray dog. Now you don't tell anybody, just because of animal rights issues and things like that. We, fortunately, have never had that happen. If it's one of the neighbor's dogs, that's kind of a tough issue."

Drown depends on coyotes to keep the squirrel population down, since squirrels consume large amounts of pasture and make holes into which livestock may step and break a leg. (Though coyotes don't pose much of a threat to his cattle, he's been approached by a predator hunting club. "They're predator callers. They go out and try to help ranchers, they find a place where they can call. They do that as a sport.")

Sometimes the coyotes aren't enough. "We had a bad squirrel problem seven or eight years ago. We had some friends who liked to target shoot, and we eliminated four or five hundred of them over the course of a year, over different acreages."

This year, Drown lost a calf to a mountain lion. "We saw the tracks and found the calf where it was killed, up in the brush. There were plenty of deer around, so you know that the lion just took the easy way and would continue to do it." Drown called in Animal Control. Turman describes the procedure. "[We use] trailing hounds that are trained in the tracking of lions and bears. They're placed at the carcass, and they'll pick up a fresh track from there and just work the track until they jump the lion. They'll chase it up a tree or into a rock pile or whatever. The cat's shot at that point. It's usually a one-day affair; usually, not even that long."

Though the lion is a specially protected mammal in California, and though traps are sometimes used, the lion is always killed. (Permission is granted through a depredation permit issued by the Department of Fish and Game.) "Every piece of mountain lion habitat in the state is at max capacity," explains Turman. If you move a lion, "you're moving a problem."

Turman is concerned about California Senate Bill 1143, which, if passed, "would ban the use of dogs to pursue lions, bears, bobcats, and raccoons. It would also ban the use of traps in the state of California. I haven't read all the text, but I think it includes adc. That's probably going to have an effect on the price of the commodities at some point. It's a really bad deal, because we're protecting endangered species, primarily ground-nesting birds, from predation. From what I understand, it would affect those projects as well."

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