Denver — To sheepmen like Nick Theos, the coyote is a sneak thief who decimates his flock and survives, even thrives, despite all the traps, guns, and poisons used against it.
To environmentalists like Sara Polenick of the Defenders of Wildlife organization, the coyote is a natural predator that should and can be discouraged from preying on sheep and other livestock by various methods that won't kill coyotes or harm the environment.
These conflicting images swirl just beneath the legal jargon of formal US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hearings. At issue: Should the EPA once again allow the use of the powerful poison Compound 1080 against coyotes?
Consumers have no small stake in the debate. Sheep ranchers argue that losses to coyotes add $200 million to $400 million a year to the cost of the wool and meat America buys. Environmentalists doubt Compound 1080's effectiveness and say the poison could present a hazard to people and their pets if it is used close to populated areas. They note that the highly adaptable coyotes not only are living on garbage and an occasional cat in Los Angeles suburbs, but they are seen with increasing frequency in the eastern US. This has lead New England sheep owners, as well as those in the Rocky Mountain states, to agitate for increased protection for their flocks. The EPA's decision is expected this fall.
Compound 1080 is a white, odorless, tasteless poison that resembles powdered sugar. Quantities smaller than one five-hundredth of an ounce are fatal to coyotes, dogs, cats, rodents, eagles, badgers, and a number of other creatures. Compound 1080 was widely used against predators in the 1950s and '60s. Then in 1972, President Nixon signed Executive Order 11643, which banned the use of chemical poisons against predators on public lands. The EPA canceled 1080's registration as a predacide.
Last summer the National Woolgrowers Association (NWA) and the National Cattlemen's Association, claiming a state of economic emergency due to coyote-related losses, petitioned the EPA to allow them to use 1080 on an emergency basis. In January, President Reagan rescinded Executive Order 11643. This cleared the way for possible re-introduction of 1080 in state and federal predator control programs.
According to Dale A. Wade, a wildlife specialist at Texas A&M's Agricultural Research and Extension Center in San Angelo, sheepmen lose between 4 to 8 percent of their lambs and 1.5 to 2.5 percent of their ewes yearly to predators. Combined with a fraction of a percent loss among calves, this translates into $ 200 million to $400 million in added costs to consumers. Of the various predators, coyotes are by far the greatest cause of losses, he notes. None of the currently allowed methods of predator control are ''consistently effective.'' And, of additional methods, use of Compound 1080 ''appears to offer the greatest promise . . . for controlling coyotes. . . .''
''Available information from knowledgeable sources indicates that losses have reached a critical stage in many sheep and goat production areas,'' Dr. Wade says.
''All we're asking . . . is police protection,'' adds Mr. Theos, a Colorado sheepman who has served in the state legislature and has acted as a spokesman for NWA. ''You know, I could sell my sheep and my ranch, put the money in the bank, and make more at 2 percent interest . . . and not have to fight coyotes.''
Environmental groups and their experts admit times are hard for the nation's sheep ranchers. But they say increasing labor costs, increasing energy and equipment costs, declining use of wool because of synthetic fibers, and growing lamb imports are the primary factors afflicting the industry - not coyotes.
Frederick Wagner, director of the Ecology Center at Utah State University, who helped study the problem for President Nixon, says ''At the time there was no convincing evidence that 1080 use alleviated (predation) losses West-wide.'' Information on coyote population and livestock losses collected since the ban show no clear signs of the poison's effectiveness, he concludes. ''I am not skeptical of the reports that sheep losses have gone up since the ban, but they were already rising in the late 1960s. And even more recently they have fallen, '' he adds.
A major objection to Compound 1080, says Russell Train, president of the World Wildlife Fund, is that ''Compound 1080 is a deadly, nonselective, and thus , ecologically unsound threat to wildlife.''
The traditional way to use 1080 against coyotes is to set out meat laced with minute amounts of the poison. Its backers term this as ''selective'' against coyotes because they are much more sensitive to the poison than other species. However, this sensitivity is measured in terms of the amount of poison it takes to kill an animal of a given weight, so the measure is misleading when applied to smaller animals, the environmentalists point out. Also, the susceptibility of a number of animal species is not well determined, they say. Furthermore, the poison is not destroyed when an animal consumes it, so it can affect other animals that may feed on the coyote bait.
Opponents also hit hard at the potential human hazard that 1080 represents, trotting out witnesses who have been poisoned by the stuff.
In general, environmentalists claim that coyotes are so adaptable and can breed so rapidly that attempting to kill them off is self-defeating. Instead, they advocate other methods, including using more herders, confining ewes during lambing, confining sheep during the night, and using electrified fences, guard dogs, and taste aversion.
In general, they attribute large livestock losses to poor management. They point to examples like that of Theodora Colburn, a PhD zoologist who raised sheep for 15 years without having any problems with coyotes. She and her children ran 100 head of sheep on their 80-acre ranch in western Colorado.
''The ranchers in the area who grazed sheep on the open range were the ones who had problems (with predators). Our neighbors with small flocks did not,'' she says.
Those running large sheep outfits are openly disdainful of ''shed lambing'' of this sort, however. They say that the sheep are not as healthy. They also argue that the environmentalists' alternatives either don't work or are too expensive.
But, says Polenick, ''They want 1080 because it is something that the government subsidizes. Alternatives cost the ranchers themselves more money but at taxpayer expense.''
Perhaps the most intriguing ''alternative'' is taste aversion. In the 1970s Dr. Carl Gustavson, now at North Dakota State University, experimented with ways to condition coyotes to avoid sheep and other livestock. Injecting sheep carcasses with lithium chloride, which makes a coyote immediately ill, will quickly condition the predators to avoid sheep, his experiments showed. However, attempts by FWS researchers to duplicate his research failed. Dr. Gustavson claims that the experiments were done improperly, while FWS experts maintain that ''taste aversion'' techniques have not been demonstrated.
While US experts have criticized this approach, it has been tested and now is routinely used in Saskatchewan as part of the province's predator control program.
It appears that the sheepmen have the political advantage on the issue. The NWA lobbied extensively for the appointments both of James Watt for Secretary of Interior and Anne Gorsuch for head of EPA.