State trapper has killed hundreds of coyotes to protect livestock

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Farm Forum

Scott Phillips has been setting snares and traps since he was a boy, and he’s developed some pretty good strategies along the way for out-foxing a fox or waylaying the wily coyotes of western South Dakota.

Which is good, because his career now – as one of 27 trappers with the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department – essentially revolves around scouting and killing hundreds of predators a year out on the prairies.

Phillips, 52, officially a “Wildlife Damage Specialist” for GF&P, works the high plains of northern Butte County and Harding County, and helps cattle and sheep ranchers protect not just their herds, but their livelihoods, from prolific natural adversaries.

Phillips’ territory is home to thousands of cattle and sheep and thus makes it a target-rich environment for predators, primarily coyotes and foxes, along with the occasional mountain lion. “With 34,000 sheep and as many cattle as we have calving, you’re going to have predation problems,” he said.

Last year alone, Phillips, working with wildlife service state pilots and gunners, helped kill close to 600 coyotes, still only a drop in the bucket for an animal with an incredible knack for surviving just about anywhere, including urban environments such as Manhattan.

“They’re the top dog, the top predator out there,” he said. “The numbers are up. They’re everywhere. They can survive on anything, eating cow manure, roadkill. They’re not like other predators.”

Still, that success, along with his ability to build relationships with the producers and landowners he serves, helped him earn the GF&P’s Wildlife Damage Specialist of the Year award for 2014.

“Building relationships is a lot of it. It’s a people-person job. You’ve got to be able to communicate with people, find out what their problem is and help them any way you can,” Phillips said.

Phillips honed his trapping skills starting at a young age, learning to snare fox, raccoon, muskrat, beaver and possum in his native home of northeast Ohio.

“The more I did, the more I wanted to do,” he said. “I went to school to be a firefighter, because with your shift, you have a lot of time off, so I would have a lot of time to trap.”

But it’s by no means a one-sided battle. Phillips said he has a deep respect for the cunning of the coyote in particular.

Knowing the animal’s habits is a big part of the job, but years of experience and his own instincts often aren’t enough.

“They can be very wily. I have caught coyotes that are snare-shy, aircraft-shy, call-shy,” Phillips said. He has also encountered coyotes missing two paws because someone has caught them before.

“I have really gone up against some tough coyotes. Don’t underestimate them, because they can prove you wrong,” he said.

Phillips worked as a firefighter for the Department of Energy and trapped on the side until 1996, when he became a full-time trapper, first for a turkey cooperative in Utah for 12 years, then for about a year with a predator board in Wyoming.

Four years ago, he moved to Buffalo to become one of 27 state trappers. Purely by chance, he found a home on Buffalo’s 3 Toes Street, likely named out of a combination of loathing and grudging respect for a notorious gray wolf alleged to have killed hundreds of livestock during a long rampage a century ago.

Missing a paw from one of many failed attempts to trap him, 3 Toes was deemed responsible for more than $50,000 in losses of cattle, sheep and even saddle horses, eluding would-be hunters and trappers for 13 years until federal wolf hunter Clyde F. Briggs finally got the best of him in July of 1925.

Phillips said Briggs returned in 1976 to donate the traps he used to a county museum and pay homage to 3 Toes.

“He actually collected a bunch of rocks and got some mortar and put up a little monument,” Phillips said. “I’ve caught 13 coyotes there at that same spot.”

Phillips said tall grass from last year’s wet spring and summer helped him guide coyotes into snares set up along fence lines.

“In a year like this when we’ve had lots of grass and lots of cover, I actually take the weed eater and make trails to get the coyotes to go where you want them to,” he said. “You need to be a good shot, good with a rifle, handgun, shotgun and know how to call and trap coyotes.”

Predator problems don’t take a time out in the dead of winter. Coyotes, females in particular, will stoke themselves with whatever meat they can find.

“They need to generate more heat to get ready for breeding season,” Phillips said. “The females, the better shape they’re in, the more pups they’ll have, the more that will survive.”

Controlling predators also helps wild game, white tail and mule deer, elk, turkey, and upland game birds like pheasant and grouse.

“When your predators are in check, more wildlife survives,” he said.

Phillips may love his work, but he also knows that being a state trapper is serious business.

“It’s something I’d love to do all my life, but it is a job and you have to treat it like that because the livelihood of your producers depends on you,” he said.