Sheep rarely die of old age.

Other than slaughterhouses, predators and disease claim most sheep. Wile E. Coyote does it best.Vern Wilson knows the difficulty in preventing sheep losses. An owner of Wilson Brothers Livestock near Payson, one of the larger sheep operations in the state, Wilson said the coyote does more damage to flocks than any other predator. But government restrictions are making it more difficult to keep predators at bay.

"Eagles will fly down and pick up a lamb and fly off with it. We've had that happen to us," said Joan Jarvis, who with her husband Lee and son Matt, raise sheep near Spanish Fork. "You can't do anything with them."

Jarvis noted that bald eagles are protected; golden eagles are protected but are not an endangered species. Ranchers aren't allowed to go after either because of the difficulty in telling them apart.

"They've just restricted us so much," she said of the government controls.

Bears and cougars are game animals that ranchers can't kill without a permit, and permits are limited. Ranchers can hunt them only after they've attacked a flock, said Vern Wilson.

"You need hound dogs, but it's practically impossible to catch them," he said. Often by the time the dogs and their handlers get to the scene and an investigation is made, the scent is gone, he said.

According to the recently released Utah Department of Agriculture annual report, the most serious issue in predator control is the coyote. Coyotes killed 23,900 sheep in Utah in 1996, including some 6,500 lambs a month old or younger. Coyote kills outpaced other predators such as eagles, mountain lions, bears, bobcats and foxes. Eagles took 1,300 sheep, up from 1,000 the previous year.

Farmers and ranchers in Utah lost 73,500 sheep to a variety of causes in 1996, including disease. Wilson said he loses 10 percent to 20 percent of his lambs to predators.

Ranchers were keeping coyotes under control until the federal government took away most of their tools, said Craig Burrell of the Utah State University Extension Service. A poison used to lace carcasses, for example, was outlawed several years ago. Also banned for general use is the cyanide gun, an M-44, that shoots the deadly drug into the coyote's mouth when the animal tugs on baited meat. Only supervised state or federal trappers can use the gun.

Animal activists call the methods used to eliminate coyotes inhumane and cruel. Especially troubling to them is the traditional, iron-jaw traps that are still legal in Utah. Utah law requires such traps to be checked every 48 hours.

"The good tools are gone," said Wilson. Now ranchers rely on fake coyote calls to lure them into the open where they can be shot, or state trappers hunt them from small airplanes or helicopters.

Sheep ranchers also rely on their dogs. A popular breed is the Great Pyrenees. They are raised with and bond with the sheep they are to protect.

"They think they are a sheep," said Wilson. When needed, their protective instincts come out to protect the flock. Some ranchers also use llamas, which have a natural herding instincts and will chase after coyotes.

Wildlife Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, kills about 4,500 Utah coyotes a year to protect livestock.

An exodus from the sheep ranching business is taking place, not only in Utah but across the country. Prices are low, and many ranchers are selling off their flocks. The most recent peak in the number of sheep farms was in 1992 when Utah had 2,300 sheep ranches. By 1996, that had dropped to 1,700 statewide.

This past year, sheep numbers in Utah dropped to an all-time low with just 375,000 head, down 20,000 head from the previous year, according to the state Department of Agriculture. The number of breeding sheep, ewes, rams and animals destined for slaughter all fell from the previous year.

Lambs once fetched a dollar or more per pound, said Jarvis. Now they command only 60 cents to 70 cents while costing 20 cents a pound to raise, noted Wilson.

On a statewide basis, cash receipts totaled $21.6 million, 4 percent less than in 1995. More than 29 million pounds of sheep and lambs were marketed, a reduction of 13 percent.

Wool production fell 12 percent in 1996 from 1995 levels, totaling 3.1 million pounds. In 1989 the value of wool produced in Utah was $5.9 million. By 1996, wool production was valued at just $2 million. Industry shrinkage accelerated after Congress eliminated the wool incentive program in 1993.