CASPER, Wyo. — Jimmy Owens shoots coyotes on sight.
Ranching a herd of 3,000 sheep, he has to. In the past two months, he said, he has lost at least 30 ewes to coyote attacks on the family ranch north of Casper.
"Coyotes are the hardest thing on sheep," Owens said. "It's money out of your pocket every time they kill."
Owens and other Natrona County Predator Management Board members spent their Saturday afternoon at Sportsman's Warehouse in Casper, doling out checks to any hunter wanting to cash in on a $20 bounty offered for each coyote killed in Natrona County.
It was day one of Natrona County's first bounty program, and the board raked in 36 sets of coyote ears.
The Predator Management District wants to use the bounty to connect with new sportsmen and to gather data about exactly where in the county coyotes are killed, according to Sy Gilliland, a sportsmen's representative to the Natrona County Predator Management Board. The program will continue one Saturday a month until its $10,000 budget runs out, Gilliland said. At $20 per coyote, that means bounties for up to 500 kills.
Board member Don Garrison said he hopes the program encourages "the ordinary citizen" to get out and hunt. The target audience, he said, is the uncle who takes his nephew; the dad who takes his son.
"That's who we want to pay," Garrison said.
"We always shoot coyotes," Michelle Dye said after her husband and three kids handed over their set of coyote ears Saturday.
"It's kind of like a family deal," Dye said. "When we're bored, we get in the truck and we go drive in the meadows and shoot coyotes."
The coyotes around their home on Hat 6 Road are getting "gutsy," Dye said. She wagers the coyote she saw 20 feet from her house last week was after her two cats. Her husband, Matt, has tried trapping. But "there's a trick to it" that he hasn't yet figured out, he said.
Three trappers hunt coyotes full-time in Natrona County. Setting snares, raiding dens and sometimes shooting from helicopters, the trappers kill between 1,500 and 1,700 Natrona County coyotes each year.
Even so, Natrona County ranchers say coyote problems persist. "Natrona County has what would be considered by many people an extreme infestation of coyotes," Gilliland said.
That's due in large part to the abolition of Compound 1080, a poison used to kill coyotes and other predators until 1972, when then-President Richard Nixon issued an executive order banning the chemical. Trappers would plant Compound 1080 in randomly scattered carcasses, killing any critter who took a bite of the toxic meat. In a flurry of ecological concerns about just how long the chemical stayed in the food chain past its first kill, the Environmental Protection Agency revoked the compound's registration as a predacide.
"We can no longer poison them," Gilliland said. "It's the No. 1 reason why we have coyotes now that we didn't have 40 years ago."
Most wildlife officials agree that accurately tallying a region's coyote population is next to impossible, and therefore no real population count exists for Natrona County coyotes. But Gilliland estimates the district's trappers kill 10 to 15 percent of Natrona County's coyotes each year. Reports from livestock producers to the National Agricultural Statistic Service suggest 17,500 sheep were killed in Wyoming by predators in 2011. Of those sheep deaths, 10,900 were due to coyotes.
Coyotes are a "necessary evil" to our ecosystem, said the Predator Management Board's community-at-large representative Lela Harrington. Along with other predators, the canines help keep antelope, deer, rabbit and sage grouse populations in balance.
"The Predator Management Board was never established — nor are they looking — to obliterate coyotes in the county," Harrington said.
Public money does not fund Natrona County's bounty program. Instead, the program is paid for by revenues collected from a $1-a-head livestock producer's tax to Natrona County's Predator Management District.
Kent Drake, predator management coordinator for the Animal Damage Management Board (ADMB), said a bounty is not the only tool available to a predator management team. On its own, Drake said, a bounty program "is not the most effective" use of federal funding.
A Cheyenne-based arm of the Department of Agriculture, the ADMB channels about $180,000 per year to the Natrona County Predator Management District, according to Gilliland. The ADMB refuses to fund bounty programs, preferring to target "individual problems" and eliminate predators as needed, rather than en masse.
Chad Erdman hauled his two coyote carcasses to Sportsman's Warehouse on pallets in his truck bed Saturday. When Predator Management folks told him all they needed for proof were the coyotes' ears, he walked back out to the parking lot with his hunting knife, sliced off four velvety ears and carried them inside barehanded.
"It's a total redneck thing," Erdman said as he opened the hatch of his truck. He kept the dogs' bodies because hunters "have a bad name anyway," he said, and leaving dead coyotes to rot on the side of the road does not help with that reputation.
The two little bodies — sans ears, of course — lay facing each other, wine-colored blood pooling near one dog's midriff, dark against the light wood of the pallet.