Voices of Spencer Creek
|The Year of the Predator
As more people make their homes in rural areas, human predator interactions are increasing, most of them unpleasant or deadly for the predator.
By Reida Kimmel
Posted on Oct 21, 2006
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She was very frail, blind in one eye, crippled by arthritis. Retired from lambing, Ninian was a pet sheep, beloved for her soft fleece, her friendly ways and her sweet face. I was shocked and saddened when I found her dead one May morning, limbs all askew, wedged between the feeder and the fence in the hill pasture. I thought she had gotten stuck there and suffocated. Burying a sheep takes a very big hole, and as Chuck had already left for work, we planned to bury her the next day. But when he went out early in the morning, there was no sheep, and the strong fence was all torn off its posts and crumpled. There were body parts. We followed the grisly trail down the hill, over the bridge, up the hill, under another fence and into the woods. There we lost the trail, but soon our dog Fen found what was left of Ninian. A bit more searching, and I pieced together the whole story. The pasture is double fenced, but still the killer, it had to have been a cougar, got in, surprised Ninian as she lay in the grass near the pen, and killed her quickly and cleanly with a crunching bite to her neck. Then the cat dragged her to what it fancied was a nice retreat, and stashed her in the pen behind the feeder. All this took place within fifty feet of our backdoor. Perhaps the cat was surprised by noise or lights from our house, and left its kill until the next night.
The day after we disposed of Ninian's remains, something tunneled into the baby chicken pen and ate all four of our chicks. Three weeks later, while we were riding less than two miles from our house, a bear cub bumbled across the trail and right under my horse Rose's front legs, and I was very badly injured from the fall I took in the immediate aftermath of that event. Chuck started calling it 'The year of the Predator.'
We have always had bears and cougars out here in the hills. But cougar sightings are becoming much more common in rural Lane County. So too, according to local hearsay, are bear encounters. Last year there was a 'rogue' cougar on a nearby road that killed some sheep and a llama. That cougar is no longer alive. This year's cougar has been sighted frequently during the summer, but has not caused any more trouble. Last week I found the remains of a deer, probably a cougar kill, in the woods above the house. It was indeed shocking to lose Ninian in such a grisly way, but the beast was just doing what predators are supposed to do, culling the old and the sick. There is no way we can give our sheep any more protection. If we insist on having sheep on the edge of thousands of acres of timberland we must be prepared to accept the risks and consequences of our choices.
I wish more Oregonians felt the way we do. As more people make their homes in rural areas, human predator interactions are increasing, most of them unpleasant or deadly for the predator. Since the economic boom of the late 1980s and the reduction of logging on federal lands, there has been a huge increase in logging on private lands. Brushy, cut over land provides ideal forage for deer. The deer attract and feed the predators. But former timberland is also prime real estate. Less trees, more deer, more cougars, more people. This is the worrisome scenario. What can be done?
State fish and wildlife officials insist that cougar populations are increasing alarmingly all over the state. Perhaps they are, but government's planned solution to the problem is directed at cougars in some of the most remote areas of Oregon. Concentrating their attention on the alarming decrease in elk populations in Eastern Oregon and blaming it on cougar predation [Lets not consider the effects of drought, overhunting, loss of range to homes and cattle, or fires. Let's just go after those easy targets!], wildlife officials have decided to reduce cougar populations in the Medford, Heppner, and Ontario districts. The sensible decision would, of course, be to go after the few truly troublesome individuals in heavily populated areas, eliminate them, and to let the bulk of the cougar population manage itself. The problem is that there are a lot of hunters who would love to go back to hunting these charismatic trophies with their dogs, and there are also a lot of people all over the state who are terrified of cougars, or even of the thought that they might be lurking in their neighborhoods.
As for 'The Year of the Predator,' it is turning out just the way it always does. A family of chipmunks that had had an adorable but messy nest in the woodshed rafters, and were playfully gleaning scraps from the nearby bird feeder got way too uppity and moved into the house, that is into the space between the exterior and interior walls of our bedroom, where they cavorted noisily amongst the wiring. It was necessary to call in the services of the Great Predator, the Mighty Hunter, that is, me. Two Havahart traps and three days later, I had the entire family of six caught and removed to likely habitat several miles away. I am ashamed at the genuine fun I get from trapping, from figuring out where best to place and bait the traps. I am even more saddened by the knowledge of how high the mortality is for displaced and reintroduced individuals. As for the mysterious chick killer, we have resigned ourselves to having no replacement laying hens this year, and our coddled old biddies are doing just wonderfully, making so many eggs that we wouldn't dream of putting them into the stew pot. But recently I found 'out who done it', another unpleasant first for our farm. Last week I found a young Norway rat, nasty alien urban rat, drowned in our turkeys' water bucket. Now something big is digging holes in the turkey's dirt floor. It, or they, are after the turkey food. The rat or rats enter the Havahart trap, poop in it, and spring it, but they are too big for the trap to hold them. Don't worry. I am relentless. I will get rid of the rats. I guess that's human nature. It's always the Year of the Predator, and the predator is us.
Copyright © 2006 by Reida Kimmel
This article first appeared in Nature Trails, the monthly publication of the Eugene Natural History Society in an slightly different version.
Reida Kimmel is a nature writer, board member of the Eugene Natural History Society and an organic gardener/small farmer in the rural backwaters we know and love as Fox Hollow, southwest of Eugene, Oregon. Visit more Reida Kimmel articles at West By Northwest.org:
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Aerial Pesticide Assault: The Never Ending Story? by Reida Kimmel
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The Last Wilderness: Can the Whales Be Saved in Time? by Reida Kimmel
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Catkins, Mushrooms and Water
Spring, Birds, Frogs and West Nile Virus by Reida Kimmel
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