By Jonathan Austin
Feb. 10, 2011 edition
Two area hunters say the growing population of coyotes and beavers in Yancey County are threatening everything from established wildlife to the viability of the forest land.
To battle the non-traditional animals, Mike Ballew and Randy Berry have taught themselves what they say are the best practices for trapping the nuisance animals.
If the coyote and beaver populations aren’t reduced, they both say residents won’t see deer, rabbits, grouse or other native wildlife.
“Coyotes are able to go everywhere” in the county, Ballew said, and are attacking cattle and goats and killing many of the white-tailed deer fawns every year.
“Last winter in one area, in a 300-yard radius I counted four deer carcasses killed by coyotes,” Ballew said. “They’re everywhere in the woods in Burnsville.”
Berry agreed. “Coyotes are able to go everywhere” in the county, he said.
Ballew and Berry say they both remember the first time they saw a coyote in the Black Mountains.
“In 1986, the first modern coyote killed here was on Mt. Mitchell,” Ballew said. “A friend of ours ran it over.” After driving the carcass down off the mountain, he showed it off to friends. “We thought it was a fox on steroids,” Ballew said.
That may have been the first, but it wasn’t the last. And the impact of the growing coyote population has hit hardest on the deer population.
“The deer population on Mt. Mitchell in the 1980s was 10 to 15 per square mile,”
Ballew said. “That’s a healthy population. Now it’s not even one per square mile” due to predatation by coyotes.
Berry and Ballew - both lifelong hunters - want to get other county hunters engaged in trapping the coyotes that are thinning the deer population.
“We’re trying to bring back the tradition,” Ballew said. “Mainly we’re just trying to get the coyotes” that are threatening other animals.
Proper deer management includes helping reduce the population of non-native predators like coyotes,” Berry said.
Ballew, who performs forest and wildlife management for Celo-area property owners, agreed. “The fawn have got to get of age to get big,” he said, but too many small deer fall prey to the migrating coyote packs.
Proper practices urge hunters to not hunt young adult bucks in order to grow more impressive racks and body weight, Ballew said. But just picking and carefully choosing the deer to be targeted in season won’t be enough to sustain the population, he warned.
If hunters “want to have big deer, they’ve got to help get rid of coyotes.”
So he and Berry are videotaping their trapping methods and will edit the material into programs they hope to sell to hunters wanting to learn the proper and most productive way to trap the predators.
The coyotes in the Celo area are not just targeting wildlife, Ballew said. They’re attacking cattle and other farm animals.
Ted McGee has seen coyotes attack his cattle on his property along the South Toe River.
“I got into the cattle business probably in the late 1980s, and had as many as 45 head. But now he said the farm is “down to 12 or 14” head of cattle; “the reason being, basically, coyotes”
The attacks on his herd began in the years following the appearance of that coyote on Mt. Mitchell.
“I’d say, in the last 20 years we’ve lost close to 20 calves”to coyotes, he said; “two in 2010.”
He said the coyotes target the calves soon after they are born. “Within the first three days is when they like to get them,” he said.
The coyotes are also attacking his other farm animals, he said. “In the last 15 years we’ve lost 40-50 goats. These were Angora goats we paid $200 a piece (for) at the time.”
He tried to protect his animals using the old-time tradition of putting donkeys in with his herd. “We had up to seven donkeys at one time; we felt they might help” protect the other animals because they’re traditionally known as tough fighters who can guard the fields. But that didn’t work, because when the coyotes showed up, the donkeys “ended up herding together” in fright.
Next he bought llamas because he had heard that the unique animals were good for protecting the goats on the farm.
The result was the same. “In one year we lost 29 goats and nine llamas,” McGee said.
What started out as a profitable ‘gentleman farm’ has turned into a nightmare, he said.”We started out with a hobby, we really enjoy it. But with the coyotes, we’ve had a terrible time.”
The South Toe Rover wraps around much of the McGee property, and he said he believes the terrain around the water seems to aid the predators. “River frontage is where the coyotes seem to den up,” he said.
The coyotes strike at night and move with surprising speed, McGee and Ballew said. “They’ve woken me,” McGee said. “You wouldn’t believe the sound at night. I’ve actually tried to get in the pickup to try to run them down, but they’re the fastest animal I’ve ever seen after dark.
He said his cattle huddle up in the pastures to find protection. “They try to stand them off, but they don’t stand a chance.”
Asked why he didn’t get specially bred dogs to protect his animals, McGee said, “If you’ve got a dog in a field you have to care for them every day, while the cattle can be put out to pasture for days or weeks at a time without constant oversight.”
McGee said he fears that the hungry canines might next turn on humans. “I’ve got a neighbor in his 60s who is afraid to get out after dark” out of fear of the coyotes. And he said the canines do come close to the house. “I’ve actually seen the droppings within 30 yards of my house. They’ve been right out our bedroom window, and near the front door.”
But would they target a human? “It’s going to happen, sooner or later. We’re easy prey.”
Andy Moore, the district supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services in Statesville, said surveys have shown that coyotes are attacking farm animals in North Carolina, but the most recent survey addressed sheep and goats.
He said the survey is completed by the USDA national agriculture statistic service. “Every five years they’ll take a survey. They’ll produce a livestock death loss report; they actually just finished the newest survey,” Moore said, “and there’s definitely a significant number of farm animals being taken by coyotes.”
The numbers are sobering. “Nationwide, coyotes are responsible for 50 percent of predations,” Moore said. Tar Heel farmers see more deaths to predators, he noted. “In North Carolina it’s about 60 percent, what’s reported on the sheep industry.
What does that mean overall? “It means 500 head of sheep were lost to coyotes in 2009,” Moore said.
So is trapping a viable way to control the coyotes and limit their damage?
“I can only speak for livestock predation and protection,” he said. “With trapping you’ll be able to impact the population. But generally,” when animals are being taken, “you’re dealing with one coyote. When you’re targeting property” for predator, “you’re probably targeting one coyote.”
Ballew differs, saying the coyotes are seen in groups, though the groups may be only three or four canines. He said residents in the area and elsewhere have seen multiple coyotes taking part in raids to kill farm animals and deer, and he didn’t think only one coyote killed the multiple deer he found strewn about in the snow last year.”
Moore pointed out what Ballew and Berry know so well: “It can be very time consuming to get the one coyote that is doing the damage.” But, “an experienced trappers can usually capture that animal.”
Ballew and Berry spend hours - usually every day - checking their trap lines that are on land from Busick to below the South Toe Campground. They have permission from landowners to install the traps, and where appropriate they’ve posted signage warning people that the traps are in place.
Moore said the USDA will respond to complaints from landowners to remove predators, but they charge a fee.
“Our involvement is in being a resource for the farmer. If they do experience livestock predation, we have specialists who can come out to their farm. We can come out and look at the situation and follow up with recommendations,” he said.
“If they want to have that offending animal removed; it would be at the cost of the landowner. The wildlife resource commission has people who are interested in doing control work. He said they are trained, and carry the title Animal Damage Control Operators.”
Ballew and Berry are trapping predators to help landowners, and they will do it for a fee.
But they want to get their video produced and distributed so others can learn the skills and techniques they have learned.
“Most of the older native people remember (trapping) as a way of life,” Ballew said. “My father made his living in the winter trapping” years ago, he said, and there is a market for pelts and even for live coyotes.
He said he and Berry intend for the video to show “everything” about successful trapping,” for the casual or the serious trapper. “There are procedures you have to follow and laws you have to respect,” he said. “You have to respect the property owners’ rights, and you have to make sure you release other animals that might get accidently caught.
He said the traps they use are humane, and that dogs that they’ve found trapped have been released unhurt. The risk of catching unintended domestic animals is one of the reasons trappers must check their trap lines with frequency, he said.
As far as the beavers are concerned, Ballew and Berry said arable land is being flooded by the animals, and streams are being diverted.
On a recent chilly morning, the two caught two beavers in traps along a beaver dam near the South Toe River. The beavers and their kin have dammed up a stream that flows into the river and cut down dozens of trees. But the downed trees are not the only ones killed; the rising water floods the roots of standing trees, drowning their roots and causing them to die, he said. “Even if the beavers don’t cut a tree, they still kill trees because they flood the land and the trees aren’t adapted to wet roots.”
He said he knows a local land owner who grow ornamentals who lost hundreds of shrubs to beaver that cut down the bushes for dam construction.
Ballew and Berry also worry that the silt churned up by the beavers may negatively impact the eggs of the trout in the river, though a state wildlife official said the risk is small because the beaver don’t establish sanctuary in the higher elevation areas where the trout reproduce.
Moore said the USDA is available to answer any questions about wildlife damage toll free at 1-866-487-3297.
Ballew can be reached at 675-0480, and Berry can be reached by calling 675-4823.