Last year, coyotes killed 40 percent of rancher John McKerlick's sheep. This year, it may be worse.
He won't know until later this week, when his flock returns from its summer pastureland on the open range of eastern Montana. But by all accounts, the number of coyotes in the area has dramatically increased.
He feels he has no choice but to call on federal agents to kill coyotes that kill his sheep. And many of his fellow ranchers are no different. Naomi Barer Fink, however, is. She and her husband have declared a cease-fire on local coyotes, turning to nonlethal methods to safeguard their flock.
Conservationists say the differences between how Mr. McKerlick and the Finks tend to their flocks marks a change in how society views predators.
After a century of treating them as competitive vermin - with taxpayers spending hundreds of millions of dollars since 1931 to kill millions of coyotes - a new movement is afoot to recognize the ecological role predators play in the environment.
At the forefront of this movement is a three-year-old experiment called Predator Friendly Wool. The Finks sell their wool through a cooperative that gets premium prices for wool if the producers refrain from killing coyotes, bears, mountain lions, and other predators during the year prior to shearing.
In place of traps, bullets, and poisons, they use a llama (which will fight coyotes), protective fencing, and daily vigilance. As a result, the Finks' sheep losses have been cut by about 75 percent from what they were five years ago.
"The idea of marketing Predator Friendly Wool is a positive alternative to the wars being waged between the environmental and agricultural communities," says Becky Weed, a Predator Friendly grower in Belgrade, Mont., who founded the Growers Cooperative.
By year's end, Ms. Weed's profitable cooperative, which takes in wool from seven accredited Predator Friendly ranchers, will have processed 15,000 pounds of fleece and doubled in size - taking in wool from 14 ranchers.
Predator Friendly advocates admit it is not a panacea for all ranchers. But critics are blunter. Ranchers like McKerlick, who have larger flocks that graze in open areas, say the program is risky.
"It is nothing more than a scam to lull the public into believing that letting predators run free works," says Bob Gilbert of the Montana Wool Growers Association. "Once they get the government to stop predator control, the ... sheep industry will be in real trouble."
Indeed, some consider coyotes a major threat to the wool industry nationwide. Montana is symptomatic of this problem, Mr. Gilbert says: In the past 25 years, the number of head of breeding stock in the state has dropped from 1 million to 300,000.
"Despite the fact that we've seen record prices and improvements in the wool market, longtime ranchers are still getting out of the business," he notes. "From what I've been hearing, predators are the primary reason, and the top predator is the coyote."
OTHERS say this destructive relationship need not continue. Biologist Bob Crabtree, who has studied coyotes for 13 years, argues that the tradition of shooting any coyote on sight has actually exacerbated problems for ranchers and contributed to a tripling of coyote presence in North America.
He contends that when coyotes are killed haphazardly, it causes a breakdown in the animal's social structure, causing more coyotes to breed and their territory to expand.
Further, by eradicating rodents, which vie for grasses with livestock, ranchers are eliminating coyotes' primary natural food source, which means they often turn to sheep to feed their young. He calls the goals of Predator Friendly a "win-win" solution.
So do many free-market economists, happy that the project takes resource users off federal subsidies. "I wholeheartedly support what Predator Friendly is doing," says Terry Anderson of the Bozeman, Mont.-based Political Economy Research Center.