Sheep predation by coyotes (Canis latrans) is a major problem for sheep producers in North America. Solutions are facilitated by a basic understanding of the trophic dynamic context of this problem, one that likely varies geographically in important qualitative ways. Little is known about vertebrate trophic dynamics in Mediterranean ecosystems, where prey are diverse and their biomass is strongly influenced multi-annually by variable rainfall. We used long-term data sets from north-coastal California, USA, to investigate whether wild prey fluctuations caused immediate negative effects on sheep predation via a reduction in the coyote functional response or delayed positive effects on sheep predation via a numerical response by coyote predators. Because we could not measure prey biomass directly, we used variables associated with lower trophic levels (e.g., annual plant productivity, vole abundance, rainfall) as proxies for wild prey biomass. Coyote population growth rate was positively correlated with lower-trophic-level variables of the previous year, suggesting a numerical response, and sheep (ad F lambs) predation was positively correlated with coyote abundance in the current year. Sheep predation also was negatively correlated with lower-trophic-level variables of the current year, suggesting an immediate buffering effect of wild prey on sheep predation. Together, coyote abundance and lower-trophic-level variables explained 47% of the multi-annual variation in sheep kills. The negative pathway between lower-trophic-level variables and sheep predation was stronger than the positive pathway, possibly due to the erratic nature of multi-annual fluctuations in lower-trophic-level variables, which could prevent the numerical response from reaching its full potential. Monthly analyses revealed a type III functional response of coyotes to lambs, which is expected to enhance buffering effects of wild prey on sheep predation. Our findings suggest the dominant effect of wild prey biomass on sheep predation by coyotes in this Mediterranean-type community is as a buffer.
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Vol. 71 • No. 7