By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Guy and Elisabeth Dicharry run a hobby ranch with goats, laying hens and a free-range flock of chickens that meanders. They keep horses too, and a trio of guard dogs that watch out for their place south of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
When the couple are working as nurses, or Guy, who’s also a lawyer, is on business in town, their animals live in peace with each other and the wilds that spread out from their land in the muted sage and sandy colors of the Southwest. The Dicharrys have never come home to a wildlife catastrophe in which an animal has been attacked by hungry mountain lion or coyote, even though the couple often hears the coyotes yowling in the distance.
So it was a big surprise in 2012 when Guy and Elisabeth discovered a group had organized a coyote-killing contest to rid the area of the animals and keep the range safe for farm stock.
“We thought why would you need a contest? If people are having a problem with predation, then they can go out and take care of that problem,” Guy recalled.
The Dicharrys knew, as do most all US ranchers, that coyotes are an unprotected predator. Any farmer or rancher who suspects them of preying on their livestock can shoot them on sight.
But while some ranchers live by the phrase “there is no such thing as a good coyote,” viewing the animal as a nuisance, the Dicharrys take a different view. They believe that the coyote, as a native American species with a specific niche in the ecosystem, has a right to be left alone.
So the Dicharrrys protested the contest. They organized like-minded folks, circulated a petition, made posters and lined the main street of Los Luna, letting the coyote contest organizers know that they disagreed with their indiscriminate killing plan.
The coyote contest promoter and participants, packing guns, staged a counter protest.
The tense week ended and the contest proceeded. But the Dicharrys resolved to stick with their cause.
Guy and Elisabeth, who fly fish and hunt game, might seem like unlikely champions of the coyote. But they’re part of a movement that’s dividing hunters into two camps, those who prefer to stick with “fair chase” rules of hunting for authorized game and those who endorse or participate in the contests. The debate also has created a push in several states, by the hunting and non-hunting public, to outlaw the contests. A bill in New Mexico to protect the coyote could pass this year.
In Guy’s view, there’s nothing fair about the “blood sport” of coyote and varmint contests, which are held across the US. The contestants aren’t hunting to secure coyote pelts (though some contests do sell the pelts) or their meat – which one coyote contestant in Texas described as “stinky” and unusable anyway. They are fanning out to kill as many animals as they can within the time limits of the contest. It’s all perfectly legal and it happens year round. There is no season for or bag limit on the coyote. Hunters may or may not need a basic state hunting license.
The contest in New Mexico, and others like it, typically use calling devices that mimic the sound of a wounded or whimpering coyote. The hunters sit in a blind or camouflaged area, luring the coyotes with these devices, and the coyotes appear, responding to what they think is a distress call from another coyote. At the end of the event, the dead coyotes are weighed and counted. The contestants who shoot the most coyotes win the “pool” of money collected from entrance fees. Other prizes go to those who shoot the largest or smallest animals.
After the contest in New Mexico, the Dicharrys organized a nonprofit they named Wildlife Conservation Advocacy Southwest Inc. (WCAS), and decided their next move would be to catalog, expose and stop wildlife killing contests across the United States.
So far, Elisabeth has compiled a list of more than 200 coyote and “varmint” killing contests in states that span the nation, from New York and Pennsylvania to Washington. Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico boast multiple events. They’re called “calling” contests, derbies, challenges or “furbusters,” but never killing contests.
Some events give to charities, such as the “Coyotes Against Cancer” in Chamberlain, South Dakota or the Benefit for the Special Olympics in Ponca, Oklahoma. One coyote contest, organized by the Lions Club of Warden, Wash., has given the money raised from pelts to kids with optical needs.
Some of the contests are virtual free-for-alls, setting the contestants loose to hunt for 24 hours before the weigh-in and awarding of prizes. Several have age categories, looping in children as young as 9 – a practice that Animal Protection of New Mexico decries as sending a “dangerous message to our children that life is cheap in New Mexico and that senseless killing is a cause for celebration.”
Others have elaborate rules, like the one in Ellis County, south of Dallas, that admonishes contestants to “come to a complete stop, squeak, call or make some kind of noise to make that animal commit before pulling the trigger. By commit I mean he must stop and look at you.” How the judges know that each dead animal met the eye of its killer is not explained.
By far, the majority of contests target coyotes, but several events list an array of species that can be shot — bobcat, foxes, raccoon, opossums, mountain lion and sometimes crows. These predators make the kill list says Guy Dicharry because they were traditionally considered “varmints” a century ago, before people understood that all animals occupy a scientifically important niche in nature.
Varmints, one contest hunter explained, are a fair target because they “are preying on something that has value to other people.” In other words, they kill deer, farm animals and pets, and in the case of crows, they eat crops.
This is the stated raison d’etre of the contests — to kill “pest” or “nuisance” animals – though critics accuse them of being a badly misguided recreation.
Several states do not have an event on Elisabeth’s list, and California, which just outlawed such wildlife contests in late 2014, is not on the roster.
WCAS is firing its first shot at contests that use federal land maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. The group is flagging these contests because they’re supposed to get a recreational permit, which requires public comment, shedding light on what are often shadowy events.
Public lands belong to all Americans and should not be a killing ground for cruel, unnecessary events that just “pile up carcasses,” Guy Dicharry said.
“Our native species have a role to play and so to just go out and wipe them out for fun, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”
Other groups also have been working to shine light on these events that exist in the gray zone between regulated hunting and poaching.
The San Francisco-based Project Coyote, a coalition of educators, scientists and wildlife activists, has been advocating for years for “peaceful coexistence” with this native predator. Predator Defense also questions whether predators are “fair game” for modern hunters and has been working to stop coyote hunts as well as trophy hunting of wolves, bear and cougar and what it sees as hyper-aggressive, costly predator control tactics (poisoning, aerial shooting and trapping) used by the USDA’s Wildlife Services. The Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife also have been working to stop the contests.
“Predators matter and we need to appreciate them and recognize that healthy ecosystems depend on their presence,” said Camilla Fox, founder and executive director of Project Coyote, which worked to get coyote killing events banned in California.
The contests, she said, represent an “old paradigm” that predators needed to be cleared from the land. But people’s attitudes have changed. “I think most people are utterly shocked when they learn that these contests are legal at a state and federal level,” Fox said.
A clash of views
The changing zeitgeist, or more precisely 50,000 letters of protest, resulted in the BLM recently rescinding rights for a coyote and wolf hunt on federal land in Salmon, Idaho. The contest went on. The promoter of the hosting group, Idaho for Wildlife, conceded that he would not “count” animals killed on public land, but derided “the BLM’s decision to revoke our special recreational permit, once again caving in to the radical anti-hunting and environmental groups just as they did last year.”
The January contest drew 125 hunters, who shot 30 coyotes and no wolves, according to news reports.
But despite changing perceptions, the coyote could still have a long road ahead before it can graduate to a more respected, and less hunted, position in America.
Coyote hunting contests are considered not just fun by some hunters — “That’s a pile, looks like a great time,” commented one online viewer about a picture of several dead coyotes – but justified.
The ironically named Idaho for Wildlife decried the wolves’ impact on the local elk herds, describing itself as a “management tool to keep predators in check.” Coyotes and wolves, the contest organizers maintained, were out to “devastate” the elk herds needed by local hunters.
This belief seems to sustain the coyote-killing activities. Participants say they’re helping ranchers, hunters or both, ensuring that cattle, sheep, deer and elk are kept safe so people can hunt and/or eat them.
“The Cattleman’s Association, they like the coyote hunts going on for predator control,” said a Washington contest hunter.
But wildlife biologists disagree that the contests are doing any good. Several top carnivore scientists signed a letter that strongly condemns the contests as having any value. The scientists say such scattershot killing doesn’t necessarily flush out problem animals and backfires anyway. Coyotes respond to the siege by producing more pups per pack (sometimes recruiting non-breeder females or breeding at younger ages). Under pressure, they also become more likely to turn to non-standard, large food sources, like farm stock.
“There is no good scientific basis for it and it likely makes the problem worse,” says wildlife ecologist Dr. Robert Crabtree, the chief scientist at the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center, whose studies on coyotes began in the 1980s.
“I can’t seem to find a reason, ethically, economically or ecologically to support predator killing contests.”
Paradoxically, the amazing resilience that coyotes demonstrate against assaults by man and habitat loss, is part of what fueled their devolution into varmint status. Coyotes are everywhere, or seem to be, though solid estimates of their actual numbers are difficult to find.
Some celebrate this ability of the coyote to flourish, thriving in woods, grasslands, almost any setting – even in the urban environs of Chicago and Los Angeles.
Those who argue that the coyotes should be left alone say predators are self-limiting. Coyotes, like all wild predators, will be constrained by their prey, which mainly consists of small mammals, like rabbits and voles, and they can be easily controlled in urban areas if people use common sense.
“They will balance their own populations,” said Ms. Fox, who’s degreed in environmental studies and wildlife conservation. “When you think about nature and predators and prey, they have evolved over the millennia. So we are the new kid on the block, wreaking havoc, and the best thing we can do is let them be. They will not exceed the biological carrying capacity of a given area.”
But others see the coyote’s adaptability as a threat and the coyote killing contests play into this viewpoint, cultivating the belief that coyotes have an unfair advantage against deer and sheep. When the contest hunters kill dozens of animals, sometimes more than 100, in a single weekend, they laud it as a public service.
How did the coyote become both an icon of the West, where it’s howling profile proliferates in art and also a “nuisance animal”?
“In the country, if you see them, you shoot them. You get rid of them as soon as you can because they’re looking to harm your livestock,” said the Washington coyote hunter.
This isn’t just the view of coyote hunters. “Most Texas landowners look upon coyotes as animals that eat their sheep,” said one wildlife official, who, like the coyote hunter, asked not to be named.
Coyotes do kill thousands of stock animals every year, according to the USDA’s Wildlife Services, whose mission is to protect people, agriculture and wildlife from (other) wildlife.
The latest WS figures show that coyotes kill more than 50 percent of the 220,000 cattle and calves lost each year to predators, and more than 60 percent of the 247,000 sheep and lambs lost annually to predators.
These losses – totaling more than 250,000 livestock animals – put coyotes squarely in the sites of the Wildlife Services, which uses guns, poisons and traps to control predators on behalf of ranchers.
Wildlife Services uses many other tactics to control “problem animals” such as dispersing them. But it also almost certainly kills more coyotes than all the coyote contests combined. In 2013, Wildlife Services killed 73,326 coyotes, using a variety of methods, including cyanide poisoning (to destroy dens of pups) and aerial shooting from planes or helicopters.
“Wildlife Services does targeted control of predators where they’re causing damage, whether that’s coyotes running across an airport runway… or coyotes causing loss of livestock,” said Wildlife Services public affairs specialist Carol Benaman.
Wildlife Services also works with ranchers to help them protect their animals by keeping them penned at night and using other “non-lethal” methods of control, she said.
So in short, each year: Coyotes kill around 250,000 livestock animals and Wildlife Services, in turn, kills some 73,000 coyotes – though critics charge that the official numbers underestimate the loss of the predators, whose packs and pups may perish after the dominant or Alpha animal is killed. Critics of Wildlife Services also question the livestock predation numbers, saying coyotes are often blamed for killing animals, when they were just opportunistically consuming a stock animal that had already perished. On the other hand, those who see coyotes as a plague on ranchers say some animals lost to predation are never found.
Coyotes also face control measures by state wildlife officials, who employ similar tactics to tamp down predator populations. And, being a “non-game” animal, they can be legally trapped and hunted by individuals almost any time, in most states.
Project Coyote estimates that the number of coyotes killed each year from all sources in the US is closer to 500,000.
Critics of Wildlife Services say its pursuit of coyotes, especially its use of aerial shooting and lethal poisons, goes beyond what’s needed, if it’s even needed.
Last year, Congressmen John Campbell (R-Irvine, Calif.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) called for an audit of the department, questioning the costs of having the government pursue native natural predators – coyotes, bobcats, bear and many other animals – as a free service to ranchers.
“Why should taxpayers, particularly in tough times, pay to subsidize private interests?” said DeFazio, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources. “I have come to the conclusion that this is an agency whose time has passed.”
An audit of Wildlife Services by the Inspector General for the USDA is underway.
In the mean time, wildlife advocates continue to work to put into perspective the predation by coyotes, which they say is a relatively small problem, for cattle at least.
The losses from all predation accounts for 5.5 percent of the cattle and calves that die prematurely (before market) every year, according to USDA statistics. Most of the nearly 4 million cattle and calves lost (out of a total of nearly 94 million nationwide) die of respiratory ailments or calving complications. Sheep bear a higher toll from predators, with 40 percent of their losses being attributable to predators, according to one federal study.
Staunching the Bloodbath
So there are serious business consequences from predation. Lambs and calves are killed.
But even some ranchers believe that their operations can exist peaceably, or at least in equilibrium, with wild predators. These ranchers advocate using guard animals, fencing, penning and moving herds or flocks during birthing periods to keep them out of harm’s way.
Sheep rancher Becky Weed operates a certified “predator friendly” ranch, the Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Co., near Bozeman, Montana, where they don’t poison, trap or shoot coyotes. The Thirteen Mile flock of sheep is guarded by a special breed of herding dog. Previously, the ranch also used llamas to protect the flock.
“This is a husbandry technique that’s been going on for centuries” and is becoming more common in the US, Weed said. Even larger ranches – hers is 160 acres – are recognizing that the guard dog is an effective tool, living with the flock and keeping carnivores at bay.
Keeping the animals safe during lambing also is important, so they’re not in the most vulnerable pastures. But Weed has noticed that moving the animals frequently is no burden because it’s also good grass management.
“You have to do a lot of things put together to make it (a predator-friendly operation) work,” she said. But when it does work, it’s good all around, she said. The coyotes and guard dogs recognize each others’ presence, and play their respective roles — the coyotes on the fringes of the farm, controlling rodents, the dogs sticking with the flock.
“I acknowledge that our situation isn’t as difficult as some, but there are bigger ranches with thousands of acres that use this approach and don’t worry about coyotes,” she said.
Wildlife Services is certain to remain on the scene, too, however, given its heavy involvement in assisting ranchers in controlling not just coyotes, but large carnivores, like mountain lion, bear and wolves in the West.
But that doesn’t mean the indiscriminate killing of the coyote contests must be tolerated, say the advocates who want to stop the competitions.
New Mexico could be the next state to codify that view. Senate Bill 253, pending in the legislature, would ban killing fur-bearing native mammals for prizes.
As advocates lobby the legislature (see more here), the Albuquerque Journal has editorialized in favor of the bill, noting that it parses the issue carefully, making Guy Dicharry’s point: “Randomly occurring wildlife contests are not wildlife management.”
“The 2015 version of a ban is a narrowly crafted bipartisan proposal that protects the rights of true sportsmen, ranchers and residents by ending one thing, and one thing only: the practice of shooting as many coyotes as quickly as possible. Because that’s what coyote-killing contests are all about – killing not because the animals pose a threat, or because the pelts and meat will be used, or because there’s a trophy to be mounted, but because it’s fun to shoot a whole lot of living things.”
“We need to redo our thinking when it comes to native species,” says Guy Dicharry. “The heart of the problem is we still think of these animals as varmints, but they have a role to play.”
Camilla Fox also believes that vanquishing the coyote contests will help us catch up to modern times and access a better approach, recognizing that “varmints” aren’t a threat and have value.
“It’s kind of like dog fighting and cock fighting, it’s a blood sport with a shameful history,” she says. “It reflects an arcane attitude toward predators that we have evolved beyond.”