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Damage Control

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2006

Last revision: Nov. 23, 2010

Jim Braithwait pulls into the driveway of a landowner who had complained of deer eating his crops.

“I hope you brought your checkbook,” quips the landowner, as Braithwait exits his truck.

“Your deer are destroying my sweet corn!”

This type of welcome is not uncommon for Braithwait. He’s a wildlife damage biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, and reducing or eliminating wildlife damage issues is his specialty.

He accompanies the frustrated landowner to the 7-acre sweet corn patch and explains that the state’s deer do not “belong” to the Department of Conservation, but to each individual of the state. Compensation for damage would not be a wise use of taxpayers’ dollars because it would not solve the problem.

Surveying the damage, it becomes clear that raccoons are the corn-eating culprits—not deer. Braithwait explains the differences in deer versus raccoon damage and recommends that a low-strung electric fence be installed. The fence is fairly inexpensive compared to the potential profits from the sweet corn.

Missouri is blessed with an abundance of wildlife, and most citizens enjoy interacting with it, whether by hunting, photographing or simply watching. That blessing, however, can become a curse when the animals we normally enjoy become a nuisance or cause damage to our personal property.

Emotions may run the gamut from aggravation to outright anger when a nuisance turns to damage. Knowing what to do about it can be equally frustrating.

NUISANCE vs. DAMAGE

Wildlife complaints fall into the nuisance animal category when an animal comes in conflict with a person’s view of when and where that animal should be.

General assistance is available by calling local Conservation offices. Personnel there can provide valuable information and resources for alleviating particular problems. Brochures are also available on our Website.  Conservation agents are specially trained and experienced in handling more complicated nuisance issues.

The most common approaches for controlling nuisance wildlife include removal of the attraction, exclusion and removal of the animal.

For example, simple solutions for a nuisance raccoon might include removing attractants such as garbage or pet food, repairing or filling openings around structures and/or trapping (with a cage-type live trap) and removing the offending animal. Sporting goods stores, lawn and garden supply stores and farm equipment supply stores often carry nuisance control equipment. The Wildlife Code of Missouri allows for property owners to control nuisance wildlife that cause damage.

When wildlife conflicts become more than a nuisance and involve property damages and financial losses, special steps must be taken.

Damage may depend on the individual’s perception. A groundhog digging under the porch or feeding on flowers may constitute damage from one point of view. Others may view that as a minor issue compared to a coyote that has developed a taste for calves or an otter that has discovered a smorgasbord in a commercial hatchery pond.

DAMAGE MANAGEMENT

Private Land Services Division is responsible for the Wildlife Damage Management Program, which assists Missourians with substantial damage and financial losses due to wildlife.

The program is staffed by six wildlife damage biologists and a central office supervisor who are specialists in identifying and alleviating wildlife damage issues. The program depends on a variety of methods, including habitat management, animal husbandry, repellents, traps and scare tactics, as well as lethal control tactics.

HISTORY

Wildlife damage problems are not new to Missouri. In 1923, Missouri hired six government trappers to remove problem animals.

Most of the damage complaints received during this time period centered on the growing coyote population in Missouri. The idea was to refer trappers to individuals suffering predation problems to trap and eliminate the offending animals. This approach proved to be too time consuming, and the trappers could not respond to complaints in a timely manner.

An extension-type predator control program began in 1945, employing two predator control agents. These agents traveled throughout the state training landowners on how to remove offending predators.

This approach proved much more effective because landowners could trap predators on their own as soon as they caused damage. The special training also allowed landowners to prevent future losses.

TODAY’S WILDLIFE DAMAGE BIOLOGIST

Today the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Wildlife Damage Management program continues to use the extension service approach.

The state is divided into three urban districts (Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield) and three rural districts (north, south and central) to best serve citizens.

The role and duties of the wildlife damage biologist have changed over the years. Once known simply as “state trappers,” they now lead public conservation programs, conduct training for Department employees, assist with special projects and act as media contacts, in addition to training landowners and trapping nuisance wildlife.

Coyotes still account for some of the damage complaints that biologists receive. However, since wildlife populations in general have increased over the years, several other species have been added to the list. Otters, beavers, geese, deer and even bears now challenge the skills of wildlife damage biologists.

OTTERS AND BEAVERS

“Otters adapted to Missouri’s landscape much better than originally thought,” says Braithwait, based in Camdenton. “When a group of otters finds a hatchery pond, the losses can be extensive.”

Setting Conibear-type traps or underwater snares can be very effective when specific travel lanes can be identified. Shooting otters, where safe, can also eliminate the problem.

A non-lethal method available to pond owners is placing a low-set electric fence around the pond perimeter. This fencing can be an economical approach for protecting fish stocking investments.

“Otters move around a lot,” says Braithwait. “You have to get right on otter damage before it’s too late.”

Identifying otter sign is the key to early detection of otter damage. Otters will pull fish up on the bank to feed and leave the skeleton when finished. Otters also love crayfish. Consequently, their scat (feces) will normally contain large quantities of crayfish shells.

Beavers are another aquatic animal that frequently cause damage. Most complaints involve trees being chewed or cut down. After all, that is what beavers do. However, if those trees cost several hundred dollars and were planted for shade or aesthetics, then something must be done.

Most control methods used for otters are also effective for beavers. To protect individual trees, property owners can wrap tree trunks with wire or plastic piping at least four feet high.

More serious problems occur when beavers clog city water supply outlets or dam water drainage systems, causing crop fields to flood. Usually, a short training session and initial trap setting with city employees or the landowner rectifies these problems.

COYOTES

Coyotes continue to cause occasional problems for farmers trying to raise cattle or sheep. Losses can get serious if the offending animal is not identified and stopped in a timely manner.

“Cattle farmers keep pretty close track of their calf crop,” says Scott McWilliams, biologist, West Plains. “After losing a calf or two, they’re anxious to catch the coyote.”

Very often though, the culprit is not a coyote at all, but free-running domestic dogs. Biologists can distinguish between coyote damage and damage caused by dogs. The ability to accurately interpret animal sign becomes extremely important in these cases.

If the culprit is in fact a coyote, it is caught by snare or foothold trap. Snares are inexpensive, easy to set and very effective. A special permit is required to set snares and can only be issued by a wildlife damage biologist.

Research shows that livestock predation by coyotes is usually the work of one individual animal. By targeting and killing the offending coyote, the predation stops and no further animals must be trapped.

DEER

Managing Missouri’s white-tailed deer population is one of the Department’s greatest challenges. Although hunters may be largely satisfied with the condition of Missouri’s deer herd, others are not so quick to applaud this abundant resource.

Most folks accept and can tolerate a certain amount of damage caused by deer. Crop farmers, landscapers and gardeners all expect and anticipate some losses due to natural causes, such as wildlife, insects and different types of weather events. However, when losses are excessive, then control methods may be in order.

Wildlife damage biologists often handle deer damage issues whether the complaint involves a lawn and garden or an 80-acre soybean field.

“For lawn plantings and gardens, property owners may try electric fencing, repellents or scare tactics to discourage deer,” says Wendy Sangster, biologist, Kansas City. “These tactics usually keep the damage to an acceptable level or can eliminate it altogether.”

In rural areas where crop damage can be a problem, biologists often initiate a hunting program that targets does.

“Reducing the doe herd is the key to controlling whitetail deer numbers in a given area. Deer seasons and permits are liberal now, especially for landowners,” says Daryl Damron, biologist, Moberly. “Many landowners have significantly reduced their crop damage losses by maintaining an active deer harvest program during the established seasons.”

When crop damage is excessive or deer numbers can’t be controlled through regular hunting seasons, then a special restricted permit may be issued by a conservation agent to reduce deer numbers.

GEESE

Another species that has found great success in Missouri is the giant Canada goose. Once thought to have been eliminated from the state, this bird is now a very common sight—too common, according to some.

“Canada geese make up the bulk of my calls in the spring and early summer,” says Tom Meister, biologist, St. Louis. “People all over St. Louis complain about the droppings on sidewalks, playgrounds and beach areas. Some nesting pairs of geese can even become aggressive and chase people who get too close to a nest. It’s just unacceptable if you are trying to run a business and the geese are chasing your customers.”

“Geese are attracted to bodies of water that have trimmed, green grass and a gentle slope to the water’s edge,” says Meister. “Most towns and municipalities have inadvertently created the perfect situation for geese when they constructed golf courses and city parks.”

Advance planning during construction can help keep geese from being attracted to a lake in the first place. But if geese are already creating a problem, there is still hope.

“Goose control techniques must be carried out consistently over time to have the desired effects,” says Sangster. “No single technique may work on its own. A well-executed abatement program implementing several techniques, including habitat manipulation, chemical control, harassment (including trained dogs), and egg and nest destruction, is critical to controlling giant Canada geese. If these techniques fail, a roundup and removal may be recommended.”

A special permit is required to disturb eggs and nests or kill the geese out of season.

BEARS

Black bears are becoming more common in Missouri and human conflict is inevitable. We receive several bear complaints each year. Bears get into trash dumpsters and they damage beehives. Less common for black bears is to prey on livestock.

“Bears are highly responsive to harassment techniques and electric fences,” says James Dixon, biologist, Springfield. “Most problems can be corrected by keeping food items out of reach and stringing electric fence around whatever you don’t want the bears getting into.”

Black bears are usually not aggressive but can be attracted to unnatural food sources like trash receptacles, campgrounds and even bird feeders. Keeping a clean camp and using trash containers with good, secure lids will prevent most problems.

“Black bears, as a rule, generally don’t cause problems,” says McWilliams. “Most of the bears that I deal with get into trouble when they are being fed. By feeding a bear, people may be unknowingly contributing to its death if it becomes a nuisance and has to be destroyed. Remember, ‘A fed bear is a dead bear.’”

Wildlife damage biologists may have to trap and relocate a bear if harassment techniques don’t work.

MOUNTAIN LIONS

Mountain lions always cause quite a stir and are the subject of many coffee shop conversations.

The Department receives dozens of mountain lion sighting reports monthly but has only been able to confirm the presence of seven free-roaming mountain lions in Missouri over the last 10 years. Where these mountain lions came from also makes for interesting discussions.

Since there are no fences around the state, nothing is stopping a wild mountain lion from wandering into Missouri from an existing population outside of the state. The nearest known populations of mountain lions occur in Colorado, South Dakota and Texas.

Another possibility is that captive mountain lions are occasionally released or are escaping captivity. Missouri requires a special permit to possess a mountain lion and strict confinement standards must be met. There are currently about 30 people in the state who have a permit to keep them, and an unknown number of people may possess them illegally.

One thing is sure—the Department has not reintroduced mountain lions. The Missouri Department of Conservation (or any other state or federal agency) has never released, bought, sold, traded, tagged, radio collared or microchipped any mountain lions in Missouri, nor do we have any plans to do so in the future.

In response to the few cats that have been confirmed and the number of reports that are generated, the wildlife damage biologists have been trained to detect and analyze mountain lion sign and damage.

“One thing that I learned about mountain lions is that if one is in the area, it will leave sign and plenty of it,” says Braithwait, who has trained in both Wyoming and Florida.

Most on-site investigations verify that coyotes, foxes, bobcats, deer and dogs are often mistakenly identified as mountain lions.

LIVING WITH WILDLIFE

With some tolerance, common sense and a little help, most of us can weather the minor inconveniences that wildlife may cause and more thoroughly enjoy the benefits that it offers. Missouri’s Wildlife Damage Management program, and the capable staff that keep it running, will help ensure that your experiences with wildlife are positive ones.

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