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Predators on the Prairie... Is there a problem?

by Dakota Country Magazine Staff


The letter on page 8 from Bill Gross of Huron, SD, raised a question: Is there, in fact, an imbalance in the predator/prey relationship in the Dakotas when it came to production of pheasants, ducks, partridge and foxes, coyotes, raccoons and others?

Wildlife has a dreadful survival rate on the northern plains. As North Dakota furbearer biologist Stephanie Tucker put it, life is cruel for all living things... especially for wildlife.

From the time a wild creature is born on the prairie, life is a constant struggle. The life span is short for everything, and even predators have enemies constantly pushing it toward death.

Many species are trying to not only survive, but flourish. Each relies on the other for forward movement. At the top of the chain is humanity, who controls everything... except weather.

Mr. Gross’s letter focuses on his observations of abundant raccoons and the lack of trappers (and hunters) to control the balance. Yet it’s not trappers who direct the program. It’s capitalism.

“They are well known nest predators,” said Tucker of raccoons. “But we don’t have the numbers (of raccoons) of other states like Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. Raccoons in the Dakotas aren’t a negative factor (on bird nesting) even when prices are high.”

Foxes are also strong on the predator list for nesting birds, among the most highly qualified nest raiders. The problem with fox is that they not only destroy the nest and eggs, they also kill the hen.

“Fox are the strongest predators (on bird nests),” Tucker said. “But there’s also a strong population of coyotes. They’re smart. We’ve had at least a decade, now, of high coyote populations in the Dakotas.”

Both nature and mankind affect coyote numbers, but they always come out on top. In addition to human pursuit, which doesn’t only include hunting, but urbanization, predators like coyotes have to deal with historic issues like distemper and mange, which, according to Tucker, flare up at the whim of nature.

While pheasants, ducks, partridge, sharp-tailed grouse, along with domestic birds, have to deal with habitat issues and winter weather, coyotes adapt to it with admiral balance known to no other creature on earth.

In fact, experts across America universally agree that no other creature has adapted better to climactic change, human activity, industrial carnage, agricultural velocity and diminishing habitat than the coyote. We have to respect that.

“They have a high tolerance for human activity,” Tucker explained. “They’ve just learned to adapt. It’s impossible to calculate their numbers. With regard to habitat or the lack of it, they are generalists. They can use anything (to survive).

When habitat for prey species is diminished, like dwindling CPR cover, predators gain a further advantage in the survival game.

“It does give predators an advantage,” Tucker said of habitat loss for prey species. “It’s not much, but it is easier for them to hunt.”

Biologist Tucker is quick to point out the benefits of habitat for all wildlife, but especially prey species, among them game birds and animals.

“We’ve learned so much more in recent years, that habitat is the key to everything,” she said. “We’ve tried to put money into predator control over the years to reduce their numbers, but it’s wasted money. Predator reduction works, but it’s only temporary. They come back quickly. That money would be far better spent on creating habitat for all wildlife. That’s what lasts in the long run.”

 

The Market

Money dictates a huge part of the prey/predator relationship on the prairie and the rest of the country. When fur prices are low, hunters and trappers have less interest in killing coyotes, foxes, bobcats and especially raccoons. These animals are used mostly for trim fur, and interestingly, it’s not the American public that utilizes these furs. It’s Italy, China, France and others. But not America, which buys mostly synthetic furs.

Despite low fur prices, coyote pelts are in strong demand in foreign countries. According to Minnesota trapper Kent Weil, “North American and European fashion houses are the primary customers of quality coyotes used for fur trim. This means that coyote pelts have been somewhat isolated from Russian and Chinese woes that have badly hurt other parts of the fur market, like raccoons and mink.”

Weil adds, “According to North American Fur Auctions, its last sale of wild fur for 2015 had an offering of 105,000 coyotes, which sold 100 percent, primarily to Italy, France, Canada and Hong Kong.”

Tucker says the world’s largest market for raccoons rests with Russia, which because of internal economic problems, hasn’t been buying much of late.

“Russia is hurting, and they’re not buying (raccoon) furs in the last couple of years,” she explained. “China is high on muskrat buying, and Greece and Italy buy mostly fashion furs.”

According to recent reports in early December, there’s a glut of raccoon furs on the market, dictated by world economy.

“There’s a raccoon surplus right now,” Tucker said. “There’s not much we can do about it. It’s market control, and Russia controls most of the raccoon industry.”

Thus, as the world economy adjusts, so do furs and fur prices… in conjunction with trapping and hunting activity.

Contrary to the 1980s in the Dakotas, when coyote and fox pelts were bringing up to $100 each, they’re now emerging again in the $30 to $40 range. And that’s skinned, stretched and cleaned.

 

Impact on Birds

But, back to the impact on game birds, pheasants, ducks, partridge and sharp-tailed grouse. Do coyotes, fox, raccoons, bobcats and others have a serious impact on these nesting birds?

About five years ago, Dakota Country did a story on three hunters in the Dupree, South Dakota area who undertook great effort in hunting fox, but mostly coyotes. Tony and Terry Russell and Rocky Longbrake combine trapping and hunting to accumulate predator animals, but mostly they hunt them with guns. They’re still going strong.

We caught up with Terry last month.

Asked about their dedication to hunting predators, Terry said, “Well, there’s not much to do in Dupree. You either drink beer or go hunting.”

This trio, I believe, represents a part of lost America in which people value their solitude, live sometimes largely off the land, and enjoy the space of northern prairie.

Terry Russell emphasized, during my recent visit with him, that there’s no shortage of outdoor activity, at least for him and his companions. He said that as of December 9, they’d killed 54 coyotes, which he considered “about average”. They’re also doing pretty well on beaver pelts.

“I think the numbers might actually be down a bit,” he said of coyotes on the western prairie of South Dakota. “That photo we had in your magazine in April, 2011, that was pretty exceptional. There was one day when we killed 36 coyotes. Now it’s about 15 or 20.”

Russell and his brothers and friends are also involved in capturing other species, including 95 beavers three years ago in the spring of 2012.

Has the abundance of wildlife increased interest in the Dupree area to lure hunters?

“It has,” he says. “Dupree is a small community of about 400 people, but during hunting season(s) it grows to 700.”

The region attracts hunters, outdoors people in general, but amazingly, remains mostly untouched by modern civilization. When asked about the impact of the influx of hunters, Russell says it hasn’t changed things.

“We have more people hunting… we have more pheasants, grouse, partridge, beaver, bobcats than ever. We have so many pheasants it’s unreal. Rabbits are everywhere, and there are lots of raccoons.

Asked about the reason for the abundance of wildlife, both prey and predators, Russell simply said it’s a matter of lack of human activity.

“There’s less people, that’s why,” he said. “It’s open spaces. There are places with abundant wildlife that you can’t get to unless you walk. It’s rough country, and most hunters won’t walk it.”

In the previously mentioned article on Russell and his companions, we noted that the trio killed 413 coyotes in a 50-square mile of their homestead in a 3-month period in November, December, 2010, through January, 2011.

Area ranchers were grateful.

“I do truly thank these three boys for all the help in the control of these predators,” said one unidentified rancher in the April, 2001 story in Dakota Country. “Without their help with predator control, it would impossible to raise livestock.”

The trio of predator hunters has been chasing coyotes and other predators since their childhood, in the case of Terry Russell, since age 5.

But while nature and the market largely dictates the population status and hunting activity of critters like coyotes, foxes, skunks, raccoons, mink, weasel and other that prey on precious upland and migratory game birds, there is at least one organization who feels something needs to be done to keep things in check. That’s Delta Waterfowl.

Delta Waterfowl began evaluating predator management in the early 1990s, after noticing that nest success for ducks and, of course, other birds, was declining across the Prairie Pothole region.

They felt something needed to be done. They hired trappers, and it’s been effective.

“Over two decades of evaluation, we have well-documented the ability of predator management to increase nest success. Trapping predators consistently doubles or triples nest success,” said a news report from Delta Waterfowl.

Duck production, according to reports from the last several years, is up. So why is it necessary to conduct predator control projects?

“The losses of CRP and native grass nesting cover, a rebound in red fox numbers and a return of more average precipitation and the likelihood of more normal wetland conditions across the prairies will necessitate tools to enhance duck production,” Delta said.

North Dakota is a major focal point of predator control by Delta. They launched efforts to manage predator control in the best nesting cover, sites with abundant grass.

“Out field experience demonstrates that this new approach to managing predators could well be the most cost-effective manner to increase total ducks production on these landscape,” said Delta. In fact, in 2014 alone, nest success for ducks in selected grassy areas of North Dakota was increased from 10.8 percent on non-trapped areas to 35 percent where predators were managed.

But there is a caveat.

“We have to have grass,” said Joel Brice, program specialist for Delta Waterfowl in Bismarck. “Grass concentrates ducks and also concentrates predators. It doesn’t carryover to next year. While progress is good, predators are quick to come back.”

Delta employed 9 trappers for predator control in 2015, with plans to work with 13 in 2016. Eight of those will work in North Dakota, mostly in the northeastern part of the state.

Predator trapping is concentrated from mid-March through mid-July, when ducks and other upland birds are guarding nests.

Delta’s overall predator control efforts take place in North Dakota, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, with plans to expand into Alberta in 2016.

So, to answer the question, there will always be an imbalance of prey and predators, going from one side to the other. Nature will effect its will when things get too far to one direction