CASPER, Wyo. — With a custom-barreled 1985 shotgun strapped to the roof of his Polaris Ranger ATV, Tim Fish carts down washboard dirt roads on a ranch south of Casper, scanning the cresting ridges for rogue coyotes.
If he sees one, he's going to shoot it.
"After 20 years of being in here, you get a feel for what's going on," Fish, a 25-year veteran coyote trapper, said as he maneuvered unmarked paths with GPS in one hand and steering wheel in the other.
"It takes a coyote to get a coyote," he said, grinning.
Coyotes are creatures of habit, Fish said, which makes tracking them a methodical process. Spotting even half a paw print is enough evidence to make Fish reach for his toolbox and assemble an M-44 — a trapping device that launches a lethal dose of sodium cyanide into the nostrils of any curious coyote who takes a bite.
One of three full time trappers contracted by Natrona County's Predator Management District, Fish spends most of his days pounding the cyanide pellets into the dry Wyoming ground. He splits office hours between ranches like this one and his less-than-fragrant snare-lined garage. His customers are mostly livestock producers, and his product is an efficient, professional means of killing coyotes.
"I hate to see an animal really suffer," Fish said. "If I have to kill something, I want it to die as fast as humanly possible."
Last year, Fish killed 101 coyotes on this ranch alone. Countywide, his total was 736. Together in fiscal year 2012, Natrona County's three trappers killed 1,568 coyotes.
Fish, who grew up trapping on a cattle ranch in Arizona, said battling coyotes "just goes with the territory."
Most ranchers would agree. Each of the approximately 10,900 sheep reportedly killed by coyotes in Wyoming last year meant dollars drained from ranchers' pockets. The National Agricultural Statistic Service estimated that coyote sheep kills alone robbed Wyoming of $1.2 million in 2011.
'Controversial by nature'
The Natrona County Predator Management District is one of 19 state-funded districts mitigating damage to livestock across Wyoming. Natrona County's management district is comprised of sportsmen's, cattle and sheep representatives, and is scheduled to receive more than $200,000 from the state in fiscal year 2013.
Judging from the district's 2011 budget breakdowns, the majority of those dollars will go toward gunning down coyotes from helicopters and to paying the three contracted trappers' salaries, which range from about $53,000 to $67,000.
Exterminating predators so livestock can thrive is a practice "controversial by nature," according to Wyoming Game and Fish Wildlife biologist Justin Binfet, who works with Natrona County's Predator Management District to track coyote kills on mule deer and other big game fauna.
"Using public money to kill wildlife is simply unpalatable to some segments of the human population, and it always will be," Binfet said.
Wyoming Woolgrowers Association Executive Vice President Bryce Reese said some people simply "don't like the fact that we have to kill animals to protect our animals."
But not controlling predators is not an option, said Reese, who said his organization represents about 90 percent of sheep herders across the state. For ranchers, predator control can range from guard dogs to alarm systems to fenced-in herds.
"You've got to do something to stop the killing," he said.
For Fish, dealing with morally charged lashes against his line of work comes with the job description. He once got a letter from Animal Liberation Front activists, alerting him that his name had been added to the organization's national hit list. Unconcerned, he said he "wadded it up" and tossed it in the trash can.
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Environmentalists "want to take man out of the food chain. I don't think you can do that. He's part of the earth, he lives here," Fish said.
Killing predators is expensive, labor-intensive work. A simple budget analysis suggests that the Natrona County Predator Management Board paid an average of $139 per coyote killed in fiscal year 2012. For each coyote shot from an aircraft that year, the price tag was $192.
"It's expensive work. It really is," said Sy Gilliland, past-president of the Natrona County Predator Management Board.
And trappers, ranchers and wildlife biologists alike acknowledge that harvesting coyotes from the same ranches year after year is not exactly a long-term solution — it doesn't take long for new coyotes to move into an area recently cleared of coyotes by aerial gunning, set snares or M-44 devices.
But other nonlethal — and potentially more cost-effective — predator management methods are in the works in Wyoming.
University of Wyoming doctoral candidate Marjie MacGregor thinks reproductive control might be a more efficient way to manage coyotes, as opposed to today's main practice of just killing them.
MacGregor is a lead researcher on a UW team developing a drug to permanently castrate male coyotes by stopping sperm production — an idea MacGregor said researchers have toyed with since the 1970s.
"We need some more effective long-term methods," MacGregor said. "The problem with constantly removing coyotes is within a few months, coyotes move back into the territory."
"If we can develop a tool where we can stop damage and not have to remove coyotes, that's a win-win for everybody," Wyoming Wildlife Services State Director Rod Krischke said. "But we just have not gotten there."
Wyoming Wildlife Services supplied MacGregor with a first batch of live coyotes for her research, and Wyoming's Animal Damage Management Board provided the initial funding.
Any reproductive drug would supplement — not altogether replace — lethal predator control, according to MacGregor.
"When things become so politically charged, we forget that it's not one or the other," MacGregor said.
"Put a little 'a this on your pancakes in the morning," Fish says, grinning as he slathers a spoonful of a putrid, meat-based paste on the inch or so of the cyanide capsule sticking above ground. Fish calls it "coyote candy," and its stench is truly foul.
His wife isn't too happy about his residual odor, Fish said, and she laments the fact that she can never fully get the scent out of his coat. Coworkers poke fun at the stink that has taken residence in the upholstery of his truck, but his dutiful hunting dogs — Psycho and Scruffie — don't seem to mind.
When Fish checks these four M-44s next week, he hopes to find a dead coyote next to every stake. For the rancher who called Fish out to "clean up" his land, that's a handful of fewer coyotes nibbling on pricey, unsuspecting sheep.
But for Fish — who will be back next year, and again the year after that — it's just a few more tallies on his record books, and one more day on the job.