Too Much Wildlife?

Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada

A growing body of research demonstrates that organically managed agricultural lands exhibit greater plant and animal diversity and richness than the lands of intensively managed agricultural systems. A recent Ontario study, cited in Dr. Derek Lynch’s "The Environmental Impacts of Organic Agriculture: A Canadian Perspective", concluded that the fields and woody hedgerows on organic farms consistently harboured more native and exotic plant species than those of conventional systems. Another cited study, also from Ontario, similarly concluded that bird species abundance and frequency of occurrence was significantly higher on organic operations. Is it logical to assume, then, that because organic farms are naturally predisposed to support a wealth of wildlife they will experience greater livestock and crop losses to some of the more opportunistic species like the deer and the coyote?

Nearly every province in Canada has seen an overall increase in deer and coyote populations in the last twenty years. Urban encroachment, mild winters and a decrease in the number of hunters have been cited as some of the reasons for this growth. For farmers, in particular, the trend can be economically taxing.  In Ontario, for example, during the 2008/2009 fiscal year the province paid out over $1.2 million in coyote and wolf damage compensation. The Saskatchewan government, in response to producer complaints regarding livestock losses, has implemented a bounty of $20 for every coyote killed. Nova Scotia, too, attempting to deal with a deer population that is responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in crop damage, is considering modifying hunting areas to deal with the increased pressure.

There does not appear to be, however, any published evidence or literature that would suggest organic farms are more susceptible to deer or coyote related damage than conventional operations.  The reason may simply be that government departments and insurance companies handling crop damage claims have yet to categorize the calls based on the management system. Or, perhaps, the typically diverse nature of organic farms lessens the overall economic impact of a pest problem. The answer remains unclear. What is clear is that organic farms will, inevitably, experience coyote and deer harassment. In keeping with the Canadian Organic Standard’s mandate that organic production should "develop enterprises that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment", extermination of culprits, through provincially legislated cull programs is a legitimate option after all other preventative measures have failed.

Many organic producers, attempting to balance profitable operations with acceptable levels of loss, have naturally extended the organic holistic agricultural model to the successful management of deer and coyotes. Inarguably, the 8 foot, wire mesh deer fence is the most effective and, in the case of high value crops, the most economic option for keeping deer out. For other farmers, however, with less profitable crops or for those on extensive acreages, a multifaceted approach is more feasible. Electric fences, increased seeding rates, repellents and dogs; these have all been used, often in conjunction with one another, to minimize crop damage. Numerous farmers have also discovered that developing relationships with responsible hunters is one method that both encourages species balance and self-sufficiency.

It would appear that coyote populations also benefit from holistic systems. For example, many organic and conventional sheep producers feel that practicing an array of preventative practices, including the use of appropriate fencing, guard animals and frequent visits to the pasture will "train" the local coyote population to avoid the flock and feed, instead, on wild prey.  In fact, numerous farmers feel that, far from reducing coyote populations, the largely ineffectual bounty programs only serve to eradicate a trained group of coyotes that will be replaced by a group that must be re-trained, at the producer’s expense. 

The Canadian organic standard dictates that organic production should "optimize the productivity and fitness of diverse communities within the agroecosystem".  Deer and coyotes, generally valued by the broader Canadian public, are but one part of that system and, therefore, calculations of economic loss should be balanced with the societal and environmental value of these two species. Most farmers, in fact, would agree. In a survey conducted of Ontario farmers, 77% felt on-farm wildlife was a necessary part of the balance of nature (OSCIA 2000). That is not to say that organic producers should tolerate culprits to the point of financial ruin, only that farmers should consider and implement all of the pest and predator preventative measures necessary to ensure the organic farm’s ecological integrity.

This article was written by Tanya Brouwers on behalf of the OACC with funding provided by Canada’s Organic Science Cluster (a part of the Canadian Agri-Science Clusters Initiative of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Growing Forward Policy Framework).  The Organic Science Cluster is a collaborative effort led jointly by the OACC, the Organic Federation of Canada and industry partners
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This article is Part 4 of a series based on Derek Lynch's 2009 paper, "The Environmental Impacts of Organic Agriculture: A Canadian Perspective". Click here to see Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.