Reno, NV — The Reno City Council voted 6 to 1 in favor of a resolution condemning wildlife killing contests and calling on the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners to ban contests at the September 8th meeting, much to the relief of local residents, scientists, activists, and national wildlife conservation organizations. Reno will join a growing number of states and counties that have formally criticized these contests, which award participants with cash, guns, or other prizes for killing the most, largest, or smallest of the target species.
Naomi Duerr of the Reno City Council and a devoted leader of the effort to pass the resolution, introduced the resolution in honor of the late Norm Harry, a lifelong advocate for Nevada’s precious wildlife. “I initiated this resolution as I feel strongly about the detrimental effects these inhumane contests have on our native wildlife,” Councilwoman Duerr said.Fauna Tomlinson, Project Coyote Program Associate and Nevada Representative, was also integral to the passage of this resolution in her hometown. “Today I’m so proud that Reno officially supports banning wildlife killing contests and I am sure Norm Harry would be proud too,” said Fauna Tomlinson. “Now we ask that the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners listen to their constituents, from Reno to Clark County, and enact a regulatory ban on these inhumane contests.”
The resolution recognizes that coyotes and other native carnivores play a key role in maintaining healthy ecosystems, such as controlling rabbit and rodent populations, and that wildlife killing contests threaten the safety and well-being of hikers, dog walkers, bird watchers, hunters, and other outdoor enthusiasts. Coyote killing contest organizers often justify the slaughter with claims that, by reducing the coyote population, they are helping to reduce conflicts with coyotes. “Wildlife killing contests serve no genuine ecological or wildlife management purpose,” said Michelle L. Lute, PhD in wildlife management and Project Coyote National Carnivore Conservation Manager. “These contests are mass slaughter events that may actually increase what are typically rare occurrences of conflict and undermine the valuable ecological roles of carnivores.”
Nevada Lieutenant Governor Kate Marshall raised additional concerns in a letter to Reno City Council members urging them to vote in favor of the resolution. She says that wildlife killing contests “are decidedly not a part of Nevada’s heritage”, and growing awareness of the contests in Nevada are “undermining the public’s view of ethical hunting, and could jeopardize the future of traditional hunting.” Additionally, she points out that animals and wildlife contribute to communities, businesses, and the economy by attracting tourists to the state.
Eight states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Vermont, Washington) have prohibitions on killing contests. In March 2021, Clark County, Nevada passed a resolution condemning killing contests and urged Nevada to ban the practice immediately. These resolutions are part of an expanding campaign to end the contests throughout the nation. “From documentary films to billboards and grassroots mobilization, we are raising public awareness about this barbaric practice, to educate, empower and inspire citizens to take action and join the growing movement to ban wildlife killings contests nationwide,” said Camilla Fox, Founder and Executive Director of Project Coyote and Co-founder of the National Coalition to End Wildlife Killing Contests. “Most people have no idea this cruel and unnecessary bloodsport is happening across the U.S. and they are shocked to learn that it is legal to slaughter animals en masse for cash prizes and awards.
Once they learn about it, they want to know how they can get involved to help end this barbarity. That’s why we steer them to ProjectCoyote.org to learn how they can get involved in this growing movement to end killing contests.” Project Coyote and its 50+ national wildlife and animal protection organization partners that have joined forces as the National Coalition to End Wildlife Killing Contests—will continue to raise awareness in pursuit of policy changes at local, state and national levels in 2021 and beyond.
- Jun 10, 2021
Aproposed rule regarding, “Prizes of Value for Predator Hunting Contests” was heard by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources Board meeting on May 27. Wildlife killing contests are organized events in which participants compete for prizes (typically cash or guns) to see who can kill the greatest number or the largest or smallest animals within a certain time period.
Participants may even compete to kill the youngest, mangiest or ugliest animal, or the animal with the bushiest tail. Contests may also be judged on a system of points attributed to each species killed, such as five points per coyote, three points per fox, etc.
While I support sustainable hunting, wildlife killing contests are archaic and outdated events that do not reflect the majority of Virginians’ feelings towards our wildlife in 2021.
Even if wildlife killing contests are held with the idea of sport and/or predator control in mind, there is no “sport” or effective population control involved in these contests, and I and many other Virginians consider it to be an unethical form of hunting.
Should our state motto be changed from “Virginia is for Lovers” to “Virginia is for Unethical Hunters”? If not, then Virginians should contact DWR Board members and ask them to please vote to support a statewide ban on all hunting contests for coyotes and furbearers.
Christine Lofgren, Vinton
Ted WilliamsWriters on the RangeView Comments
Would you like to earn money and prizes by killing coyotes, foxes, cougars, bobcats, wolves, raccoons, squirrels, crows, rattlesnakes, rabbits, prairie dogs, woodchucks or skunks?
If so, you can enter any of the thousands of wildlife-killing contests permitted and sometimes promoted by 44 state game and fish agencies. Such contests are legal in all Western states save California, Washington, Arizona and Colorado.
These events have names like “Song Dog Smackdown,” “Good Ol Boy’s Fall Predator Tournament” and “Predator Palooza.”
Names of competing teams are no less evocative. Placing high in a Lone Star Predator Calling Classic were “Beer Belly Varmint Hunters” and “Team Anthrax.”
Standard equipment includes reclining chairs, electronic predator calls, tripods and other gun rests, spotting scopes, spotlights, night-vision goggles, other thermal-imaging equipment and high-capacity assault rifles equipped with telescopic sights. Prizes include cash — $50,000 if you win the West Texas Big Bobcat Contest — and such paraphernalia as camo clothing and AK-47s.https://d9bc17fb1b1349c1707da0ab0e16b485.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Many contests have children’s divisions. Sponsors include gun companies, sporting-goods stores, fire departments, 4-H clubs and chambers of commerce.
Body counts are impressive. One of the 717 teams in last year’s Big Bobcat Contest turned in 94 foxes. Carcasses are piled, photographed and invariably discarded.
“Event coordinators are being hassled,” lament directors of a killing-contest support group called Coyote Contest. “Help us promote those who still understand and value the services that predator hunters provide!” Commentators on the group’s website explain these “services”: “Save a fawn; kill a coyote,” “Wanted dead or alive for the crimes of stealing fawns, turkeys, & livestock,” “Saving livestock one bullet at a time!”https://d9bc17fb1b1349c1707da0ab0e16b485.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
It doesn’t work this way. Predators do kill game and livestock, but no game species in the United States is suppressed by predation, and overpopulated species like elk and deer lack the predators needed to maintain their health and that of native ecosystems.
Robert Crabtree, who did the seminal work on coyotes in central Washington and Yellowstone National Park, reports that to reduce a coyote population, at least 70 percent of the animals need to be eliminated — something he says “rarely, if ever, happens.”Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.Create Account
He found that where coyotes aren’t persecuted, average litter size at birth is five or six, but because of competition
for prey an average of one to two pups survive their first year. When coyotes are shot, trapped or poisoned, pup survival increases because competition is reduced.
So coyote “control” results in more, not fewer, coyotes.
What’s more, Crabtree has found that indiscriminate killing of predators increases livestock loss. Because coyote “control” (which, again, doesn’t approach 70 percent) reduces the number of adults able to feed young, packs tend to abandon their normal small-mammal diet mammal diet and turn instead to larger prey, like livestock.
Carter Niemeyer, a retired predator-control agent, tells the story of the rancher who phoned him after one aerial operation. “Carter,” declared the rancher, “do coyotes revenge kill? We haven’t had trouble with coyotes all winter. We saw your helicopter the other morning and heard lots of shooting. Now we’ve got coyotes killing sheep. What the hell’s going on?”
Here’s the explanation: Random shooting of predators creates chaos by removing “desirables.” Other predators fill the void including “undesirables” that do kill livestock
The public wearies of wildlife-killing contests. Three years ago they were legal in every state save California. Now they’re also banned in Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts and Maryland. New Mexico and Vermont have banned coyote-killing contests.
Competing to kill wildlife outrages the fair-chase hunting community. “We don’t like anything that smacks of commercialization with money or prizes,” remarks Eric Nuse, a hunter educator who serves on the boards of Orion —The Hunters’ Institute and the New England Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “Anything that doesn’t honor the animals grates on us.”https://d9bc17fb1b1349c1707da0ab0e16b485.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Wildlife-killing contests can erode “the public’s view of ethical hunting,” reports the Wildlife Society, comprised of 11,000 biologists and managers.
No trained wildlife professional believes that killing contests accomplish anything worthwhile. This from the Pennsylvania Game Commission: “The agency (has) finally accepted the reality that predator control does not work.” Yet the Commission still sanctions 27 major wildlife-killing contests that attract thousands of participants.
Why do 44 state game and fish agencies continue to allow these contests? Money. Employees are fed and clothed largely by hunting-license revenue; and wildlife-killing contestants must buy hunting licenses even though they’re not “hunters.”
More accurately, people who compete to kill wildlife are described by their critics as “assassins.”
A graphic documentary opens eyes about the bloody sport.ByAusta Somvichian-Clausen | March 23, 2021https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.447.1_en.html#goog_1144971600:00 of 00:59Volume 20%
Story at a glance
- Wildlife killing contests are currently legal in more than 40 U.S. states on both public and private lands.
- These contests specifically target predator species, with coyotes being the most targeted.
- Wildlife management experts and scientists say that these contests are an inhumane and inefficient way to control predator populations.
“Do you think you have what it takes to win the highest paying hunting contest in the country? Then put your money where your mouth is, and enter the West Texas Big Bobcat Contest.”
The tagline of the West Texas Big Bobcat Contest, this call to action refers to only one of more than 600 wildlife killing contests in the state of Texas.
These privately organized events involve a growing number of participants competing for prizes, whether in the form of cash or hunting equipment, by either killing the most animals or the largest ones within a specified time period. Depending on the rules of the contest, competitors target predator species, such as bobcats, coyotes, pumas and foxes.
“The whole approach to hunting is not valued in these contests,” said Stephanie Garcia Richard, the Commissioner of Public Lands in New Mexico. “What’s valued in these contests is to win.”
Richard contributes her thoughts on the contests to a newly launched documentary by National Geographic wildlife videographer Filipe DeAndrade and his production company, Comfort Theory. DeAndrade’s film, simply titled “Wildlife Killing Contests,” attempts to shed light on what many experts consider to be an unjust practice. Viewers are brought into the makeshift natural arenas that represent the boundaries of these contests, as participants attempt to rack up as many kills as possible. DeAndrade tells us that he visited many of these contests himself for a first hand look.
“In the U.S., they’ve been happening for, that we know of, at least between 20 and 30 years. At first it was mostly happening in western states, where livestock was more prevalent in agriculture, but it’s really picked up as of the last five or 10 years,” said DeAndrade.
“We followed a hunter around, with his permission, on one of these 24-hour hunts, and he told us, because of the prizes, because of the technology, because of the money that’s now involved — it’s becoming a sport.”
The roots of hunting competitions
Many of the hunting competition participants, including those interviewed in DeAndrade’s short film, claim that the culling of predators helps with wildlife management and protects livestock on nearby farms and ranches.
“For me it’s hard to explain to somebody who absolutely hates it, but like I know that in my heart what I’m doing is for a good cause,” said a regular contest participant featured in the film who chooses to remain unnamed.
Scientific evidence has yet to be presented in favor of these claims, and studies cited by Texas Parks & Wildlife (TPWD) show that general predator removal applied randomly with no specific management objective is not actually an effective way to control predators or reduce livestock predation.
“Such haphazard removal of individuals can have unintended consequences such as disrupting population age and social structure, as well as increasing litter sizes of certain targeted predators,” according to the TPWD statement.
A single contest can result in more than 1,000 animal deaths within the span of a single night, and a lack of fair chase principles mean that the predators being stalked for slaughter can be lured by distress calls and the promise of food. It is estimated that in the U.S. alone, more than half a million coyotes are killed by humans each year — about one per minute.
“It’s so much easier to kill predators than it is to kill anything else,” said DeAndrade, “because all they do is just call them in. They use the techniques, like playing the sound of another dying animal, which obviously triggers a predatory response. It means that they’re not even ‘hunting’, they’re just calling these animals in and shooting them. So, it’s a lot easier to kill something that way than it is to do a proper tracking and hunt. Then, by targeting public lands where animals have or should have protection, you’re obviously going to have more predators to do that with.”
Perhaps a better case is made for contests with a concentration on nonfurred invasive species, such as a recent killing contest in eastern Texas that eliminated 350 feral hogs from the area. There are more than 3 million feral hogs in the state, and the invasive species is responsible for more than $90 million in crop damage as well as $25 million in predation and disease issues associated with livestock. It has been estimated that just one wild pig can significantly disturb about 6.5 square feet of soil in just one minute, which can increase soil erosion rates and have detrimental effects to sensitive ecological areas and critical habitats for species of concern.
In the case of endemic species predator hunting, both wildlife biologists and scientific studies agree that that isn’t an effective way to control predators.
“Coyote killing contests as a measure of predator control actually does not work,” said Richard. “Especially, in particular, for this species, wiping them out actually has the opposite effect, and we will experience an overrun of the population. That will have devastating consequences.”
Damaging to the reputation of ethical hunters?
Lately, an increasing number of state wildlife management agencies and commissions are beginning to acknowledge that killing contests have the potential to cast a large shadow on the reputation of ethical hunters.
“Coyote hunting contests are not only ineffective at controlling coyote populations, but these kinds of competitive coyote hunts are raising concerns on the part of the public and could possibly jeopardize the future of hunting and affect access to private lands for all hunters,” The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department said in a statement.
In “Wildlife Killing Contests,” David K. Langford, the former executive director of the Texas Wildlife Association, said he can’t imagine a worse public perception of hunting than predator killing contests with cash prizes.
“It jeopardizes hunting, the hunting industry, and all wildlife-related issues,” Langford said.
Multiple authorities within state Game and Fish commissions have come out to denounce the practice, pointing out that that these contests, which rarely bring in new hunters and are practiced by a small subset of the hunting community, reflect on the overall community and have the potential to threaten hunting as a legitimate wildlife management function.
“Awarding prizes for wildlife killing contests is both unethical and inconsistent with our current understanding of natural systems,” said Michael Sutton, former president of the California Fish and Game Commission — a body that promulgates hunting regulations. “Such contests are an anachronism and have no place in modern wildlife management.”
As pointed out in a piece by the Yale School of Environment, it is rare to see agreement between the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Boone and Crockett Club, which advocates for “the ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit” of big game. Despite this, Mark Streissguth of Boone and Crockett replied, “They got at least this part right,” to HSUS’s identification of wildlife killing contests as “grisly spectacles that are about as far as one can get from ethical, fair-chase hunting.”
States taking action
In 2014, California became the first state to institute a ban on killing contests. Since then, Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Vermont have all joined in outlawing killing contests for coyotes, foxes, bobcats and other species, and several other states are now considering similar action.
Washington became the seventh state to ban the contests as of last September. The ban, put forth by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, prohibits wildlife killing contests involving any species that could be killed in unlimited numbers, or without a “bag limit,” including coyotes.
“The decision to ban these cruel killing sprees is a vital step in promoting scientific management of the state’s native wildlife and aligning our laws with the values of the majority of the people of Washington,” said Sophia Ressler, Washington wildlife advocate and staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
In Nevada, opposers of such contests have remained in a yearslong battle to have them banned, starting in 2015 when the state wildlife commission considered a public petition to ban the contests, but ultimately dismissed the petition as incomplete. Now, at the end of a recent two-day hearing, the state Wildlife Commission voted five-to-four to take up a proposal to ban wildlife killing contests at a later date — most likely this summer.
Barbaric or necessary?
A dead Eastern coyote hung upside down above a bucket of dried blood in a rural Pennsylvania fire hall, its lips locked in a perpetual snarl.
Some men crouched beside it, while other adults twirled spaghetti with a fork, looking on from aluminum chairs. Children held canned sodas and stared.
“Thirty-eight pounds even,” the men said when the needle on the scale settled.
On this sunny February afternoon last year, 38 pounds wouldn’t take the crown at the 17th annual Sullivan County Coyote Hunt in Laporte. The weekend-long contest saw 27 coyotes killed, the prize winner coming in at 44 pounds.
January and February are prime coyote-hunting months in Pennsylvania, when most of the state’s two dozen contests, like Sullivan County and the larger Mosquito Creek Coyote Hunt in Clearfield County, take place. Although proponents say the coyote population needs to be controlled, many opponents of these killing contest-style hunts say they’re barbaric and disrupt the natural balance, taking out a “keystone predator” that controls rodent and pest populations and keeps feral cats, raccoons and skunks in check as well.
“The coyote is by far the most persecuted predator in North America,” said Camilla H. Fox, founder of Project Coyote, a California nonprofit that has aimed to stop the contests. “There’s a half-million alone killed each year.”Advertisement
The Pennsylvania Game Commission describes Eastern coyotes as “immigrants,” however, descendants of animals that moved in from the West and established themselves here in the 1940s and ’50s, and some consider them a distinct species, generally bigger than coyote cousins out west. The state was already home to native species that actively hunt rodents, including fishers, foxes, bobcats, weasels and a host of predatory birds, said Aaron Facka, furbearer specialist for the state commission.
“In short, if coyotes vanished from Pennsylvania tomorrow, I would not expect a sudden population boom in rodent species,” Facka said.
Hunters and trappers take 30,000-plus per year and say they’re the only thing keeping coyote numbers in check.
“All the hunts in the state don’t put a dent in the population,” Dan Morrison, Laporte’s fire chief, said at last year’s hunt. “They’re very smart.”
There could be as many as 100,000 coyotes in Pennsylvania, officials say, roaming mostly unseen through every county, including Philadelphia. Known as the “trickster” in Native American folklore, coyotes exist, both biologically and in our psyches, somewhere between the mythical wolf some revere and the beloved dogs snoring in our beds. No fewer than three people interviewed for this story uttered the same sentiment: “When the world ends, there will be cockroaches and coyotes.”
“They are survivors,” said Alan Probst, a Williamsport native who’s trapped coyotes all over North America. “They have adapted to all of their surroundings.”
Coyotes’ midnight howls and yips startle the unfamiliar who are asleep in tents far from the city, and every so often, they emerge to steal a toy poodle in the suburbs. They’re even at the Jersey shore, denning under empty mansions in winter.
Human interactions are rare, but sometimes, usually when coyotes are sick, they bite people. A coyote that bit two men and a dog in York County last year had rabies.
While many hunters believe coyotes also kill a great number of whitetail deer, the state’s most prized game animal, Facka said that is “largely overstated.”
In rural areas of the state, farmers say coyotes sometimes prey on livestock, particularly smaller animals like sheep and goats. They can usually tell by how clean the kill is.
“They go for the neck and puncture an artery. Then they eviscerate them and take out the organs and take them back to their den for the pups. They actually move the intestines out of the way,” said James Sheeder, a Somerset County farmer who said he lost 50 lambs and sheep to coyotes and vultures years ago before he began trapping them and using guard dogs to keep them away. “It’s all very neat, compared to, say, a dog or a bear.”
Unlike the strict regulations on whitetail deer, trout or turkey — which often include set seasons and hours, size and sex requirements, and bag limits — coyote hunting in Pennsylvania is limited only by how much free time hunters have. The season, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, is “24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
Hunters can kill as many as they want.
While hunters can shoot coyotes all year long, there is a season for trapping them that generally begins during the last weekend in October, the current season ending Feb. 21. Trapping is often seen as a better method of population control, because an entire area can be blanketed. Trappers can sell the pelts, which are used as hood liners on winter coats.
Of the traps, Probst said, “They work for you while you’re sleeping.”
In Pennsylvania, Facka said the coyote population could not be controlled without human intervention.
“Coyotes are usually held down in population by wolves,” he said. “Wolves will drive them out of an area or kill them.”
The last known wolf in Pennsylvania was killed in the 1890s, but the Humane Society of the United States, which also opposes hunting contests, says coyotes have filled the role wolves once played in many states.
Coyotes can also have a biological response to hunting pressure that further confounds efforts to contain them. When coyotes are hunted and killed, survivors may respond to that population void, and the decreased competition for food, by having more pups.
“It can be complex, but when there are higher densities of coyotes, there can be a repression of reproduction,” Facka said.
It is one reason Project Coyote believes “unexploited coyote populations are self-regulating,” and indiscriminate killing is ineffective.
Fox said that, out west, some chase coyotes on snowmobiles and run them over. It’s called “coyote whackin’,” and the Wyoming Legislature declined to make that illegal.
In Pennsylvania, hunters are permitted to use tracking dogs, electronic calls that mimic injured prey and, thanks to legislation approved by the state in July, infrared and thermal night-vision scopes to spot them easier in the darkness.
Shari Beatty, a Tioga County coyote hunter who spearheaded the state to get infrared and night vision approved, said those tools make a night hunt more efficient and humane. Beatty, who makes her own coyote calls, gave a presentation at the contest in Laporte last year with a documentary crew in tow.
“It’s just another trick in your bag,” she said. “With that kind of equipment, you can see every detail of the animal and there’s no mistaking that shot.”
Biology students from Keystone College were also on hand at a table outside the firehouse taking blood and tissue samples from the dead coyotes for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to monitor the health of the populations. That also attracted a crowd, including Gary Adams and his granddaughter.
Adams, of Montoursville, Lycoming County, said Pennsylvania’s liberal coyote-hunting rules don’t translate to an easier time killing them.
“Pennsylvania is probably one of the hardest states in the country to hunt,” he said. “A lot of people hunt them, and they hunt them with dogs, and they’re even more wary cause they’re always being chased. They’re extremely intelligent. That’s what keeps me hooked.”
Fox said seven states have banned killing contests, including Massachusetts and Vermont in the Northeast. Unlike trapping, the coyotes killed during contests are shot with rifles — and most, she said, are simply discarded, their pelts worthless.
“It’s hard to use a pelt with a big bullet hole in it,” she said.
At Laporte last year, a few dead coyotes were sold between hunters for their pelts.
“I’ll give you $30 for it,” one man told a hunter.
Mosquito Creek’s contest began Feb. 19 and ended with weigh-ins Feb. 21. The Sullivan County hunt is Feb. 26-28. Last year, 219 coyotes were killed at Mosquito Creek, the state’s largest hunt, but Facka said considering the number of hunters who enter, the contests are hardly a slaughter.
“You might have 4,000 entrants in some of these contests,” he said. “And if they’re killing 200, not thousands and thousands, that shows how real the challenge is.”
Probst, who hosts “North American Trapper” on the Sportsman Channel, said the ship has long since sailed on letting nature sort itself out. Everything must be managed, he said, whether it’s feral cats, cockroaches or coyotes.
“A lot of people think they’re this mythical creature,” he said of coyotes, “and they’re not.”
The original idea promoted by Chesher’s Outdoor Store, in Bellville, Ontario, was to hand out cash and prizes to the hunters who killed the biggest coyotes, the smallest, and the highest number, as well as a prize for each dead coyote. But, under Section 11 of the provincial Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act – unless specifically authorized by the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry – it is illegal for a person to (a) hunt for hire, gain, or expectation of gain; (b) hire, employ, or induce another person to hunt for gain; (c) trap for hire, gain, or the expectation of gain; (d) hire, employ, or induce another person to trap for gain; or (e) pay or accept a bounty.
Despite the clarity of the law prohibiting this type of contest, the government allowed the store to modify its plan slightly to award hunters who shoot the 10 largest coyotes and the smallest during the month of February, and proceed with the event.
The legality of this killing contest is questionable at best, but the immorality of it is not in question. Not only does it glorify mass slaughter of coyotes, it places wolves and dogs at risk, too.
Coyotes can be difficult to distinguish from wolves. There are two species of wolves in Ontario. One of these species, the Algonquin, or eastern, wolf is an endangered species. They are on average larger than coyotes, but they otherwise resemble them. While Algonquin wolves are not found around Bellville, hunters can participate in this contest just a couple of hours away by car, in areas where Algonquin wolves are found. These endangered wolves should not be put at risk for the sake of a ridiculous and cruel killing contest.
Coyotes can also resemble certain dog breeds, such as German Shepherds, putting dogs in peril, too. Coyotes generally begin to whelp in mid-March, so people with look-alike dog breeds, including some smaller dogs, need beware that they could be caught in the crossfire!
A couple of hundred years of history demonstrates that bounties, which is all this really is, do not work to achieve what is presumably the intended aim (rightly or wrongly) of this contest – to reduce coyote numbers. Unlike wolves, coyotes are incredibly resilient. They are survivors. Therefore, if the purpose is to reduce the population of coyotes, it will not work.
What purpose does this killing contest serve? Not wildlife population control. And, surely not wildlife conservation. Instead, this contest merely appeals to the joy some people take in killing for the sake of killing.
I find joy in and celebrate life. There is a group of six coyotes who live in the area behind my back fence. This is my neighborhood, and it is also theirs. Long may I, and other compassionate people in our neighborhood, enjoy their enthusiastic yapping and howling on a cold, starlit winter night!
Keep Wildlife in the Wild,
By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
February 10, 2021 0 Comments
At the killing contest in Williamsport, Indiana, contestants drag coyotes they massacred. They punch holes into the animals’ legs so they can hang them upside down and weigh them. Photo by the HSUS2.1KSHARES
It is a bloody scene at the Texas weigh-in of the “De Leon Pharmacy and Sporting Goods’ Varmint Hunt #1” on a cold January morning this year. Participants in this wildlife killing contest are unloading the bodies of bobcats, grey foxes, coyotes and raccoons from their trucks, which are expensively outfitted for the killing with raised decks, comfortable chairs and gun mounts. Sixty or so animals have been slaughtered over the contest’s 21-hour period, using assault rifles and other powerful weapons.
Our undercover investigator is on site, documenting the goings-on. The animals have gun shot wounds in their heads and bodies, with their organs spilling out and faces partially destroyed.
One participant stands over a row of animals he killed. He casually nudges a coyote with his foot, telling our investigator: “I shot this one up here in the throat from high up and it blew out the whole bottom of his chest.” The weapon he used, he says, was a high-end, custom-built rifle that uses .22 Creedmoor cartridges. “They’re like a .22-250 on steroids” and “not very fur-friendly,” he notes. “In these contests, it’s not about—like, you know, I wouldn’t use something like that if you wanna save the fur.”
A team of three men, calling themselves “Dead-On,” are the winners, having killed five coyotes, two bobcats, a raccoon and a fox. Contest organizers hand out more than $3,000 in cash prizes.
At the Texas Killing contest, competitors unload and weigh bobcats, coyotes, foxes and raccoons they killed. Photo by the HSUS
Earlier, on Dec. 6, our investigator documents similar cruelties at another wildlife killing contest in Warren County, Indiana. At the Williamsport Fire Department, where the winners are determined, participants pile up dead animals, some already stiff, to be judged for prizes. They discuss the barbaric ways in which they killed the animals and they punch holes into their legs so they can hang them upside down and weigh them.
Like the Texas contest, this one in Indiana allowed the use of high-tech equipment to kill animals, including electronic devices to lure them into the open by mimicking the cries of dependent young. The adult animals who approach are quickly mowed down. The guns used are so powerful, they obliterate the animals’ fur.
“I enjoy it,” says one participant, about the killing. He says he is a regular coyote hunter and uses an AR-15 rifle with night vision to shoot animals. He and his team killed 128 coyotes last season, he brags.
The apparent winners of this contest are four men who dub themselves the “Midwest Predators.” They wear matching team jackets. Together they have killed about 16 of the approximately 60 coyotes slaughtered during the two-day event.
Cruelty such as this is hard for most of us to fathom. Unfortunately, it is very real and it is happening all around us, in nearly all of the 43 states where wildlife killing contests such as these are still allowed. They encourage the killing of wild animals like coyotes, bobcats, foxes and raccoons for fun and for cash prizes, and they are held at the most innocuous places, like fire departments, pharmacies, restaurants and even churches, completely unregulated by state wildlife agencies. Children are often present, and sometimes even encouraged to participate.
In most cases, the bodies of the animals killed have no use after they have been weighed and the prizes handed out. They are sometimes tossed into large dumpsters or left in the woods to rot in piles.https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/jumXRyrDayE?feature=oembed&wmode=transparent&iv_load_policy=1&modestbranding=0&rel=0&autohide=1&autoplay=0
Over the past three years, the Humane Society of the United States has documented the carnage at wildlife killing contests from coast to coast—in Oregon, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia and New York, and now in Indiana and Texas. Our goal is to wipe them out—and the senseless cruelty they endorse and encourage—for good.
The reason we turned the spotlight on Texas and Indiana this time is because wildlife killing contests are rampant in these states and in the rest of the nation’s heartland. Texas, in fact, likely has more wildlife killing contests than any other state in the country—around 50 every year. The contests target a broad range of species, including bobcats, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, badgers, jackrabbits, ringtails, opossums and even mountain lions and crows.
One such event, the nation’s biggest, is the West Texas Big Bobcat Contest, held in San Angelo every year between January and March. During its first leg this year in January, 644 teams competed for $148,000 in prize money. The winning two-man team that killed the biggest bobcat raked in $45,080, while another team collected $6,440 for killing 81 foxes in 23 hours.
At Indiana’s Coyote Showdown contest held in Greenfield in January 2021, roughly 45 teams killed 109 coyotes and 10 red foxes, according to social media posts.
The Texas and Indiana contests allowed the use of high-tech equipment to kill animals, including electronic devices to lure them into the open by mimicking the cries of dependent young. The guns used are so powerful, they obliterate the animals’ fur. Photo by the HSUS
Participants and those who seek to keep these contests alive falsely claim that they help prevent wildlife-livestock conflicts. There is no evidence to show that this is true and our own analysis of federal data has shown that numbers commonly offered to back such claims are grossly overestimated. Most Americans are, in fact, disgusted by wildlife killing contests, and want them to end.
Fortunately, as a result of the work we’ve done to expose the cruelty, seven states now ban wildlife killing contests, and many more are working on bills to end these events, including Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Oregon. This is important work aimed at ending the unnecessary suffering for thousands of animals every year who are victims of these contests, and we need your help. If you live in Texas or Indiana, please contact your state director to see how you can help end wildlife killing contests. We also urge you to call your Senators and Representative in Congress and ask them to pass a federal ban on these contests. Wildlife killing contests do nothing but promote a culture of insensitivity and cruelty against wild animals who play important roles in the ecosystems they inhabit. These animals definitely do not deserve to be blasted apart with assault weapons, and the sooner we end this cruelty, the better off our nation will be.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.
By Kevin Bixby
Featured Image (c) laura c carlson, Canid Collapse, graphite, watercolor, and mulberry ink, 2020
In late December 2014, I received a call from a friend. He and his wife had made a gruesome discovery while exploring the desert outside of Las Cruces. They had stumbled upon the bodies of 39 dead coyotes.
I knew what had happened.
Wildlife killing contests are just what the name suggests. Participants compete for prizes to see who can kill the most coyotes, bobcats, foxes or whatever the target species happens to be. The animals are not eaten, nor are their pelts generally taken. They are simply killed for fun and profit. After the prizes are awarded, the victims are unceremoniously dumped, often by the side of the road.
The coyotes my friend found had been shot in a killing contest held the previous week by a local predator hunting club. I had been tracking the group on Facebook. “Smoke a pack a day” emblazoned over a photo of a dead coyote was one of their favorite memes.
Normal people find these events abhorrent. The hunters I know do not participate in them and tell me privately that they find them distasteful. But few hunting organizations have taken a public position against them[i], and many, like the Sportsmen’s Alliance and Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, oppose efforts to ban them. The fact that the public face of the hunting community condones wildlife killing contests, and that these competitions remain legal in all but six states, is emblematic of the deep divide over wildlife management in the U.S. today.
A System in Need of Reform
It is sometimes said that hunting is conservation. The idea is expressed in various ways—hunters pay for conservation, hunters are the true conservationists, hunting is needed to manage wildlife—but they all suggest that hunters, and hunting, are indispensable to the continued survival of wildlife in America.[ii]
As an occasional hunter who has spent my entire career in wildlife conservation, I disagree. Hunting can be many things—family tradition, outdoor recreation, a source of healthy meat—but the claim that hunting is the same as conservation just isn’t supported by the facts.
But there’s more to the statement than harmless hyperbole. The assertion that hunting is conservation has unmistakable meaning in the culture wars. It has become a rallying cry in the battle over America’s wildlife, part of a narrative employed to defend a system of wildlife management built around values of domination and exploitation of wild “other” lives, controlled by hunters and their allies, that seems increasingly out of step with modern ecological understanding, changing public attitudes and a global extinction crisis.
In August 2018, more than 100 advocates and academics from around the country gathered in Albuquerque to talk about how to transform state wildlife management. It was the first national conference held on the topic.
Some speakers decried the fundamentally undemocratic nature of state wildlife decision making. Others recited the litany of state wildlife management failures, such as sanctioning controversial practices opposed by most people, e.g. trophy hunting and leghold trapping. Underlying all this animus was a shared sense that states are not doing nearly enough to protect wildlife, and that the root problem is the stranglehold hunters, as an interest group, have on state wildlife management.
The issue is hugely significant in conservation circles. States play a critical role in wildlife management, sharing legal jurisdiction over wildlife with the federal government. The conventional wisdom is that the feds are responsible for a subset of organisms—threatened and endangered species listed under the Endangered Species Act, migratory birds protected by international treaties—while the states have authority over everything else (except on Native American lands, where tribes have jurisdiction). Although not everyone agrees with this assessment,[iii] the reality in America today is that, for most wild animals, states dictate how they are used, by whom, and if they are protected at all.
So who are the proponents of the hunting as conservation idea? Not surprisingly, they include organizations that promote hunting, such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation whose “Twenty-five Reasons Why Hunting is Conservation” is probably the most elaborate articulation of the concept. The hunting as conservation view is also popular with gun groups like the National Rifle Association that like to conflate their second amendment advocacy with a “defense” of the hunting tradition. But it might be unexpected, and disconcerting, to learn that this view is also widely shared by the state and federal agencies charged with protecting America’s wildlife.
What these entities all have in common is a vested interest in preserving the status quo in wildlife management in the U.S.—a system that was developed to a large extent by hunters, is supported financially by hunters, and continues to be operated primarily for the benefit of hunters.
This is especially true at the state level where hunters are disproportionately represented on appointed wildlife commissions, where wildlife agencies overseen or advised by those commissions are staffed largely by people who are either hunters themselves or share their values, and where the opinions of the 82 percent of the public that do not hunt or fish are routinely discounted or ignored.
I want to be clear. Hunters deserve a great deal of credit for their historic role in saving some of America’s “game” species (i.e. species pursued by hunters, such as white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, elk and pronghorn). Without their organizing and lobbying for game protection laws and their willingness to purchase licenses that generated revenue for the enforcement of those laws, these species might have disappeared. However, the institution of wildlife management that hunters helped to create, and that today exists primarily to serve hunters, is simply not focused nor equipped to meet the extraordinary challenge of preserving species and ecosystems in the face of a mass extinction crisis that is unraveling the fabric of life everywhere.
Teddy Roosevelt and the Rise of the “Sport” Hunter
To understand how the current system came to exist, we need to look at the history of wildlife in America over the past century and a half, a time span that encompasses the most efficient destruction of wildlife in human history. The steady retreat of wildlife in the face of European settlement greatly accelerated after the Civil War, when a convergence of technological, social and economic factors ignited a massive expansion of market hunting to satisfy the demand for wild meat, hides, furs and feathers. In the absence of any effective regulations to control this free-for-all, staggering numbers of animals were killed in the course of just a few decades. An estimated 10-12 million bison in 1865[iv] were reduced to approximately one thousand in all of North America in 1890. Massive numbers of pronghorn, bighorn sheep, elk and deer were also killed. Passenger pigeons were hunted to extinction.
In response, influential recreational hunters like Teddy Roosevelt, George Grinnell, and Gifford Pinchot began to organize in the late 1800s into groups like the Boone and Crockett Club and lobby for game laws to protect the species they enjoyed hunting. Over time, “sport” hunters became a major source of funding for state wildlife agencies through their purchase of licenses and later through their payment of federal taxes on equipment used for hunting and fishing. Hunters remain a significant source of agency revenues today. Not surprisingly, agencies came to view hunters as their most important constituents.
This financial relationship aligned nicely with the prevailing view of conservation during the same period, which was focused on restoring depleted game populations and managing them to produce a “harvestable surplus” for the benefit of hunters. Aldo Leopold, often considered the father of modern wildlife management, defined game management in his influential 1933 book on the subject as “…the art of making land produce sustained annual crops of wild game for recreational use.”
He likened it to other forms of agriculture where various factors needed to be controlled in order to enhance the yield, which, in the case of game animals, included things like regulating hunting and killing predators. This approach led to the successful rescue of certain game species from near extinction.
Although Leopold embraced a more ecological perspective in later writings, much of wildlife management as practiced in the U.S. today still reflects his earlier agricultural view. As the concept of conservation has evolved, state wildlife institutions and policies haven’t kept pace.
We now understand that species interact as parts of ecosystems, and that these systems generate the services—clean air and water, healthy soils, pollination, medicines, etc.—that sustain all life on the planet, including humans. In this holistic view, all species are important.
The context for conservation has changed dramatically as well. The world is currently undergoing a mass extinction crisis in which plants and animals around the world are disappearing at a frightening rate due to a host of human activities. Since 1970, North America has seen a 29 percent drop in bird numbers. Populations of terrestrial vertebrates—mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians—have declined by an average of 60 percent across the globe in this period. Insect numbers are plummeting worldwide. An estimated one million species are now facing extinction. Scientists have called this a “biological annihilation” and warn that urgent action is needed to stop it.
Informed by these facts, the goal of wildlife conservation is, or ought to be, to protect and restore the diversity of life at all levels; but that remains less important to state wildlife managers than ensuring a harvestable surplus of game animals for human hunters. To be fair, most states also have programs to protect endangered and threatened species, but these tend to be underfunded and a lower priority than game management programs.
I would add that any definition of conservation that does not include a measure of compassion and justice for individual animals is out of step with public attitudes, which are moving away from regarding wildlife as strictly a resource for human use and toward respecting wild creatures for their intrinsic right to exist as well. Killing contests are a prime example. While they don’t usually cause a long-term decline in populations of targeted species, and are legal in most states, most people find these events immoral and not in keeping with a conservation paradigm that includes concern for individual animals.
Game Management vs Wildlife Conservation
The on-the-ground differences between ecological-based conservation versus traditional wildlife management are often dramatic. There are countless examples of this, but let’s look at three general categories: exotic species, “nongame” animals, and carnivores.
The introduction of alien species around the world is recognized by biologists today as a major threat to biodiversity. In the past, however, exotic game animals were brought in by state wildlife managers to provide novel hunting opportunities. In my state, the New Mexico Game and Fish Department maintains huntable populations of several introduced ungulates (oryx, barbary sheep, and ibex) despite their competition with native species and the ecological havoc they wreak.
While most states are no longer in the business of importing exotic terrestrial animals, fish are a different story. States continue to raise and stock literally millions[v] of non-native fish in their waters every year, solely for the benefit of anglers. These introduced fish often prey on, hybridize with, or compete with native fishes and harm aquatic ecosystems. New Mexico dumps more than 15 million non-native fish into the state’s waterways annually, all of them predatory species like rainbow trout and walleye. Some of these naïve captive-raised fish, which frequently don’t survive more than a few weeks in the wild because they fall easy prey to human anglers or other predators, have to be obtained from other states to meet perceived demand.
When it comes to fish, state wildlife agencies are, in effect, operating as monopoly industries. They have co-opted a public resource—native aquatic ecosystems—in order to produce a consumer product—fishing opportunities for non-native fish—which they then sell to generate revenues for themselves.[vi] The agencies exercise exclusive control over access to their product—you can’t fish in a public water without a license—and their high volume stocking programs maintain consumer demand (“angler expectation”) for their product at a level far beyond what could be satisfied by native fish populations alone. These “put and take” stocking programs sell a lot of licenses, but to say they have anything to do with conservation is ludicrous, and irresponsible, given that freshwater fishes as a group are more endangered and going extinct faster than other vertebrates worldwide.
The divergence in management results is also apparent in how “nongame” species are treated. Prairie dogs, for example, are considered by biologists to be a keystone species because of their outsized ecological importance. Approximately 170 other vertebrate species depend on prairie dogs in one way or another. Conservation-driven management would prioritize their restoration and protection; but in most states where they exist, prairie dogs are considered pests and used for target practice and killing contests.
The disparity between game management and ecologically-focused conservation is nowhere more evident than when it comes to native carnivores. Top predators like wolves and mountain lions play a vital role in ecosystems. Most were wiped out from large parts of their historic ranges by the mid-20th century. Conservation would prioritize restoring them as widely as possible across the landscape, but hunting-driven management seeks to do just the opposite.
Carnivores have historically been vilified by hunters and wildlife managers as competitors for game animals and threats to livestock, and that attitude is reflected in state policies today. Coyotes are unprotected and persecuted in most states. Where wolves have been taken off the federal endangered species list, states have responded by subjecting them to intensive hunting and trapping intended to suppress their numbers to keep them just above the level that would trigger federal oversight again. Wyoming allows wolves to be killed year-round, with no limits, over 85 percent of the state. Idaho’s wildlife agency pays shooters to kill wolves in remote wilderness areas and has reinstituted bounties on them.
The argument is often made by defenders of the status quo that, without hunting, wildlife populations would grow unchecked and run amok, but this is not supported by science. Leaving aside the question of what happened in the millions of years before modern humans appeared, there is ample evidence that top carnivores such as wolves, mountain lions, bears and coyotes, regulate their own numbers. They do this by defending territories, limiting reproduction to alpha individuals within a group, investing in lengthy parental care, and infanticide. Hunting is not needed to keep populations of top predators in check; and indeed, it has the opposite effect, because it disrupts the social interactions through which self-regulation is achieved.
Predation can influence the numbers of ungulates like deer and elk, but by which predators? Most state wildlife managers oppose the reintroduction of top carnivores that have been extirpated from their borders, or if they are present, try to keep their numbers artificially low to reduce competition for game animals with human hunters. In essence, then, past and current management policies, driven by antipathy toward carnivores and a desire to improve hunting success, have created a “problem”—scarcity of predators—to which hunting is offered as the only “solution.”
The Myth that Hunters Pay for Conservation
Probably the most common reason for claiming that hunting is conservation, and for justifying hunters’ privileged status in wildlife matters, is that hunters contribute more money than non-hunters to wildlife conservation, in what is usually described in positive terms as a “user pays, public benefits” model. That is, the “users” of wild animals—hunters—pay for their management, and everyone else gets to enjoy them for free, managers commonly claim.
This is disputable. The financial contribution of hunters to agency coffers, while significant, is nearly always overstated.
It is true that hunters contribute substantially to two sources of funding which comprise almost 60 percent, on average, of state wildlife agency budgets: license fees and federal excise taxes. But there are at least three major problems in leaping from this fact to the conclusion that hunters are the ones who “pay for conservation.”
First, as discussed, there is a considerable difference between conservation and what state wildlife agencies actually do. Secondly, even if one assumes that everything state wildlife agencies do constitutes conservation, much of their funding still comes from non-hunters, as explained below. And third, some of the most important wildlife conservation efforts take place outside of state wildlife agencies and are funded mainly by the general public.
State wildlife agencies undertake a wide variety of activities, including setting and enforcing hunting regulations, administering license sales, providing hunter safety and education programs, securing access for hunting and fishing, constructing and operating firearm ranges, operating fish hatcheries and stocking programs, controlling predators, managing land, improving habitat, responding to complaints, conducting research and public education, and protecting endangered species. A substantial portion of these activities are clearly aimed at managing opportunities for hunting and fishing, and not necessarily the conservation of wildlife.
The second problem with saying that hunters are the ones who foot the bill for conservation is that it discounts the substantial financial contributions of non-hunters. To begin with, more than 40 percent of state wildlife agency revenues, on average, are from sources not tied to hunting. These vary by state, but include general funds, lottery receipts, speeding tickets, vehicle license sales, general sales taxes, sales taxes on outdoor recreation equipment, and income tax check-offs.
In addition, the non-hunting public contributes more to another significant source of wildlife agency revenues—federal excise taxes—than is generally acknowledged. These taxes are levied on a number of items, including handguns and their ammunition, and fuel for jet skis and lawnmowers, that are rarely purchased for use in hunting or fishing. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, my initial calculations suggest that non-hunters account for at least one-third of these taxes, and probably a lot more.
Third, significant wildlife conservation takes place outside state agencies, as others have pointed out, and it is mostly the non-hunting public that pays for this. For example, more than one quarter of the U.S. is federal public land managed by four agencies—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Forest Service. These 600-plus million acres are vital to wildlife, providing habitat for thousands of species, including hundreds of endangered and threatened animals. The cost to manage these lands is shared more or less equally by the taxpaying public. (Hunters also contribute to public land conservation by mandatory purchases of habitat stamps and voluntary purchases of duck stamps, but these are relatively insignificant compared to tax revenues.)
Wildlife for All?
Even it were true that hunters contribute more financially to agency budgets than non-hunters, it’s worth asking if that means they deserve a greater voice in wildlife decisions. Is it fair that one, small user group—hunters—monopolize wildlife management simply because a system has evolved under which their expenditures, opaque (excise taxes) and involuntary (license fees) as they are, end up supporting the agencies tasked with protecting wildlife more than does the non-hunting public? Another user group—wildlife watchers—are nearly twice as numerous as hunters, according to a 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) survey. Yet another “user” group is even larger: all of us, because we all “use” wildlife to keep ecosystems healthy and benefit from the results. Why should these groups be relegated to minority status, or excluded entirely, when it comes to deciding how wildlife is managed?
Under our system of law, wildlife is considered a public trust. Wild animals do not belong to anybody. The government as trustee is expected to manage wildlife for the benefit of the public, including future generations, and balance competing uses to ensure that the trust is not harmed and the broad public interest is served. It is antithetical to this concept that one group would be granted greater access to wildlife because, for whatever reason, they contribute more financially to its management. It would be like saying that only rich people should be allowed to send their kids to public schools because they pay more in taxes.
It is a question of equity. Everyone benefits from wildlife, everyone should share in the cost of protecting wildlife, and everyone deserves a say in determining how best to conserve wildlife. If hunters’ claim that they pay more than their share for wildlife conservation is true, the solution is not to exclude others from a seat at the table, but to find new, more equitable sources of funding to support the work.
Struggle for Power
If the idea that “hunting is conservation” is not factually true, why does it continue to have currency? The answer, I believe, has to do with a struggle over power, identity and values. Wildlife management is now firmly ensconced in the culture wars.
The public is increasingly concerned about wildlife and wants a voice in management, something that has long been the exclusive purview of hunters and their allies. Promoting a narrative that wildlife can’t survive without hunters is part of a larger effort to defend the status quo in wildlife governance by those who currently enjoy privileged status and don’t want to give it up.
As with many other social inequities in America today, the people who hold disproportionate power when it comes to wildlife are mostly white men. Hunters and anglers are 74 percent male and 80 percent white (non-Hispanic), according to the 2016 FWS survey. Looking just at hunters, the demographics are even more skewed. Eighty-nine percent are male and 96 percent are white (non-Hispanic). This demographic bias is reflected at state wildlife agencies where 72 percent of personnel are male and more than 90 percent are white.
It could be argued that the undemocratic nature of the current system of wildlife management is a legacy of its elitist origins in which affluent white men like Teddy Roosevelt played such an important role. The term “sportsmen” was adopted, at least in part, to distinguish men of means who hunted for fun rather than for subsistence or market. The roster of the Boone and Crockett Club in its early years reads like a who’s who of New York high society. These individuals were instrumental in getting laws passed to protect game animals, but one wonders if their influential role in shaping the system that emerged also imbued it with a sense of entitlement for men like themselves.
Efforts to equate hunting with conservation gained momentum in the mid-1990s in response to mounting challenges to the status quo. The number of hunters was declining, relative to the general population. Litigation by advocacy groups to protect species under the federal Endangered Species Act was on the rise. State wildlife managers viewed these lawsuits as a threat to their management authority, and still do.
This was about the time that the Ukrainian-born Canadian wildlife biologist (and hunter) Valerius Geist came up with the idea of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. As he described it in a 2001 article he co-authored entitled “Why hunting has defined the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation,” recreational hunters were the ones who rescued wildlife from extinction, built the system of wildlife management we have today, and continue to make the most significant contributions to conservation. By implication, he suggested that the interests of hunters should be prioritized over those of other stakeholders.
A full discussion of the North American Model is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say that it has rapidly become something of a sacred doctrine in wildlife management circles, widely heralded as the premier model of wildlife conservation in the world. The problem that is it is both an incomplete framing of history which downplays the contributions of non-hunters, and it is an inadequate set of guidelines for preserving species and ecosystems in the face of the current mass extinction crisis. Nonetheless, its unchallenged acceptance within the wildlife management community has helped fuel the narrative that hunting is indispensable to conservation.
It was around this time also that hunters and their allies began to respond to perceived threats to their control of wildlife decision-making by passing right-to-hunt laws and amendments to their constitutions that affirmed the right of their residents to hunt, fish and trap. Adopting language advocated by groups such as the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, these measures often enshrined hunting as the preferred method of wildlife management and protected “traditional” methods of hunting which were often controversial, such as using dogs or bait stations. Alabama was the first to pass such as law in 1996 (excluding Vermont, which passed its law in 1777). At last count, 27 states have enacted them.
The struggle over wildlife reflects a clash of competing values. In a 2018 national survey, researchers identified two major orientations toward wildlife, which they called domination and mutualism. People with domination values tend to believe that animals are subordinate and should be used for the benefit of humans. Those with a mutualistic bent embrace the idea that animals are part of their extended social network and possess intrinsic rights to exist. These orientations shape not just a person’s attitudes toward wildlife but the way they view the world in general.
Among the general public, more people hold a mutualistic outlook (35%) than domination (28%).[vii] The mutualistic orientation has been ascendant in the U.S. at least since 2004, according to the survey. Hunters and wildlife managers, on the other hand, tend to hold a domination orientation—a set of values that are in retreat.
As people tend to do when they perceive their values and personal identity to be under attack, those of the domination perspective resist change. The hunting as conservation narrative is part of that resistance. So too is the strident rhetoric employed by many hunting and gun groups to characterize any perceived critique of the status quo as an attack on their hunting “tradition.” I find the quickness of these groups to attribute even modest proposals for change as representing the spear tip of a chimerical “radical anti-hunting, animal rights” agenda baffling, since the general public overwhelmingly approves of hunting for food, as do most major wildlife groups. Even the Humane Society of the U.S., frequently identified by those in the hunting community as their arch enemy, does not oppose hunting for food.
The domination orientation that prevails among hunters and wildlife managers leaves little room for a definition of conservation that includes consideration of the rights or interests of individual animals. Traditional wildlife management is concerned almost exclusively with the status of animals in the aggregate, i.e. populations and species. Talk of animals having rights—for instance, the right to not be subjected to cruel methods of capture such as leghold traps, or to not have their families broken apart as invariably happens when intensely social animals like wolves and coyotes are killed by hunters—is dismissed as soft-headedness.
Hunters and their allies are quick to assert that wildlife management decisions should be dictated solely by science, not emotion, as if science could adjudicate among what are essentially value matters. Science can tell us, for example, how many mountain lions can be removed by hunters without causing an unsustainable decline in their numbers, but it can’t tell us whether we ought to be hunting mountain lions in the first place. Under our current system of wildlife management, it is simply assumed that if hunters want to hunt an animal, and the species is not endangered, then hunting will be allowed, regardless of public opinion.
This is why wildlife advocates have launched dozens of ballot and legislative initiatives since 1990 dealing with controversial wildlife-related matters aimed at circumventing state agencies and commissions. Not surprisingly, hunting groups and wildlife managers generally oppose these efforts, which they deride as “ballot box biology.”
It is possible to see a connection between the efforts to democratize wildlife management with other social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. Just as not all cops are racist, neither do all hunters view the world through a domination lens. But like police, hunters are participants in a system that has its origins in the desire to control and exploit the less powerful, in this case wild animals.
Wildlife Conservation at the Crossroads
For their part, state wildlife agencies face a dilemma. As the already small number of hunters continues to decline, the agencies are threatened with a loss of revenues while facing demands from the non-hunting public to take on more responsibilities. They have two choices. They can embrace a more ecological mission and new constituencies, or they can double down on the status quo by trying to convince more people to take up hunting and fishing.
Many state agencies seem to prefer the latter approach. Every state wildlife agency now has a Recruitment, Retention and Reactivation (3R) program designed to increase participation in hunting and fishing. Nationally, there is an effort to “modernize” the Pittman Robertson Act to allow states to use Pittman Robertson funding for 3R programs, something that is currently not permitted. This is a legislative priority of the Association of State Fish and Wildlife Agencies, which bills itself as the voice of state wildlife agencies.
To be fair, state wildlife agencies cannot magically create new funding on their own. Legislatures have to approve new funding mechanisms, which few have been willing to do.
It’s unfortunate that we’re having this debate in America over wildlife management because it distracts from the urgent business at hand. The challenge of protecting biodiversity in the face of the ongoing mass extinction crisis is enormous. Scientists warn us we have maybe a decade remaining before we reach a tipping point for protecting biodiversity as well as avoiding irreversible effects of climate change. Both are existential threats to human society and life on Earth, and neither crisis can be solved without protecting and restoring intact ecosystems and species. There is a growing call among scientists to prioritize biodiversity preservation on half of Earth’s land area and seas by 2050. This improbably ambitious goal—currently less than 15 percent of land and about 5 percent of the oceans are protected—is increasingly seen as a crucial step for dealing with these interconnected crises.
In contrast to nearly every other nation in the world, the U.S. does not have a national biodiversity action plan. We may never have one under our federalist system. To preserve the diversity of life in this country, we need the states to be leaders, not obstacles, and that won’t happen without a radical reinvisioning of wildlife management at the state level.
The steps in that transformation are clear. It begins with new marching orders. State legislatures need to equip their wildlife agencies with the mandate and legal authority to protect all species, including invertebrates, which are essential to ecosystem functioning. Many states currently lack this comprehensive authority. In New Mexico, for example, the Department of Game and Fish has only been delegated legal authority over about 60 percent of the state’s vertebrates, despite the fact that the state is home to more species of birds, reptiles and mammals than almost anywhere else in the U.S.
Legislators also need to provide their wildlife agencies with the resources to support their expanded missions, including new funding sources that are not tied to hunting. For one thing, it is not fair to saddle hunters with more of the financial burden of protecting wildlife. The public should share this burden broadly. Secondly, state wildlife agencies will be reluctant to embrace a broader mission and new constituencies if their longstanding financial dependency on hunters is not severed.
States also need to democratize wildlife decision-making. In most states, the wildlife agency is overseen or advised by a commission, whose members are usually appointed by the governor. Hunters constitute a majority on most of these boards. If wildlife is a public trust, shouldn’t the general public be better represented on commissions tasked with managing that trust? There will always be a seat at the table for hunters, but it’s long past time to start appointing more people to represent the overwhelming majority of the public that does not hunt.
And finally, state wildlife agencies need to welcome new partners. Preserving nature in the face of the current extinction crisis is a massive challenge. Wildlife managers will need broad public support to be successful, but first they must earn the trust of the non-hunting public.
A good first step is to stop saying that hunting is conservation. At best, this statement acknowledges the historic role hunters have played in protecting America’s wildlife. At worst, it is inaccurate, polarizing, and a distraction from the real work. Like other monuments to the past that now serve to divide, it needs to come down.
[i] Of the more than 50 major hunting organizations that are members of the American Wildlife Conservation Partners, none publicly opposes wildlife killing contests.
[ii] For the purposes of this article, the term “hunting” includes both hunting and fishing.
[iii] One speaker at the conference, University of Montana’s Martin Nie, gave a presentation based on his lengthy law journal article entitled “Fish & Wildlife Management on Federal Lands: Debunking State Supremacy.”
[iv] Per environmental historian Dan Flores in his book American Serengeti. Others have put the number of bison at this time higher.
[v] Information gleaned from state wildlife agency websites puts the number well over one billion.
[vi] Every state has enacted a law, as a condition of eligibility to receive federal grants under the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, requiring that revenues from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses cannot be used for anything other than the administration of its wildlife agency.
[vii] A substantial number of people (21%) score high on both scales, while another 15 percent show little interest in wildlife and score low on both scales.
Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission votes to end competitive killing of coyotes, bobcats, foxes, crows and other species for prizes
SEATTLE (September 11, 2020)—A coalition of state and national wildlife protection organizations is applauding the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission for its vote today banning wildlife killing contests, in which participants compete to kill the most, the largest, or even the smallest animals for cash and prizes. The new rule, put forth by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, prohibits the killing of unprotected species including coyotes, bobcats, crows, foxes and raccoons as part of a contest. Contest participants killed at least 1,427 in these events in Washington between 2013 and 2018.
Washington joins six other states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Vermont—that have taken a stand against cruel, unsporting and wasteful wildlife killing contests. California banned the awarding of prizes for killing furbearing and nongame mammals in 2014; New Mexico and Vermont outlawed coyote killing contests in 2019 and 2018, respectively; Arizona and Massachusetts prohibited killing contests that target predator and furbearer species in late 2019; and in April 2020, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission voted to ban wildlife killing contests for furbearer and certain small game species in the state.
“The majority of Washingtonians respect and value wildlife and this step forward by our Commission is in line with those values,” said Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Barbara Baker, who championed this issue with her fellow commissioners. “As stewards of our state’s wildlife, prohibiting a practice that contravenes sound wildlife conservation, fails to increase game populations and harms ecosystems is simply the right decision.”
“Today, Washington became the seventh state in the country to ban wildlife killing contests, sending a message to the nation that the senseless killing of animals for cash and prizes does not belong in a civilized society,” said Dan Paul, Washington senior state director for the Humane Society of the United States. “We applaud the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission for passing this rule, which recognizes that the vast majority of the state’s citizens will not tolerate this reprehensible practice. We urge other states to follow.”
“Wildlife killing contests are a bloodsport just like dogfighting and cockfighting, which have been outlawed nationwide,” said Camilla Fox, founder and executive director of Project Coyote. “We commend Commissioner Baker and the entire Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission for relegating these ecologically and ethically indefensible events to the history books.”
“The decision to ban these cruel killing sprees is a vital step in promoting scientific management of the state’s native wildlife and aligning our laws with the values of the majority of the people of Washington,” said Sophia Ressler, Washington wildlife advocate and staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“We appreciate and respect the action taken by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission and the work of the WDFW staff that enabled passage of this rule,” said Diane Gallegos, executive director of Wolf Haven International. “Wildlife killing contests do not reflect traditional hunting values, science knowledge or humane treatment of wildlife. All animals deserve to be treated with respect and indiscriminate killing of wildlife for prizes has no place in today’s wildlife conservation ethic.”
Wildlife agencies and professionals across the country have expressed concerns about killing contests because they reflect poorly on responsible sportsmen and sportswomen. In the last two years, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife Board and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission voted to prohibit these gruesome killing contests, citing the grave damage that such events could inflict on the image of hunting in their states. Wildlife management professionals have also noted that wildlife killing contests contravene modern, science-based wildlife management principles.
In 2018, Project Coyote’s Science Advisory Board, together with more than 70 renowned conservation scientists, issued a statement citing peer-reviewed science that refutes claims that indiscriminately killing predators permanently limits their populations, increases the number of deer or other game species for hunters, or reduces conflicts with humans, pets or livestock. In fact, randomly shooting coyotes and other wild carnivores can disrupt their social structures, leading to increases in their populations and more conflicts. Nonlethal, preventive measures are most effective at reducing conflicts with wildlife. Wildlife killing contests are also destructive to healthy ecosystems, within which all wildlife species play a crucial role. For example, coyotes and other targeted species help to control rabbit and rodent populations and restrict rodent- and tick-borne disease transmission.
By Jim Robertson, CASH President
Photo copyright Jim Robertson
The rocky relationship between modern humans and coyotes, since the first cowboys and sheep boys drove their stock out onto the western plains, prairies and cleared forestland, has played out as a one-sided war waged against an unarmed opponent. Like stormtroopers from an evil empire toting weapons of mass canid destruction (traps, snares, rifles, planes and poisons), ranchers have scored heavy casualties against the embattled, outnumbered and outgunned freedom fighters. Still, coyote populations continue to hold their own and (due in part to the annihilation of wolves over much of North America) have even expanded their range from primarily west of the Mississippi to include all 49 continental United States and much of Canada.
Across time and across the continent, the coyote has been persecuted by those who value animal life only in terms of whether it benefits them. A true native to America (one of the few species of mammals to evolve in the Western Hemisphere), the coyote neither wandered across the Bering land bridge nor stowed away on a trans-Atlantic schooner. They are so inextricably tied to the American landscape that efforts to eradicate them from a given ecosystem usually result in a rebound of their numbers.
Although their merit may not be apparent to those who seek to stamp them out, the fact that coyotes have endured despite overwhelming odds is proof of their significance in nature’s design. Anyone with eyes and an open mind can see that coyotes do quite a lick of good in many important ways.
Partners for life, both mother and father are devoted parents–playful, nurturing, affectionate, and protective. One spring in Yellowstone, I watched a forty-pound mother coyote put herself between her den and a hefty male grizzly bear. With distracting yelps and a resolute performance, she successfully lured him from the hideaway where her pups were safely concealed.
Distinctive yelps and evocative howls are part of the coyote’s diverse repertoire of vocalizations–their familiar chorus helps keep the pack in touch. Coyotes howl to communicate with fellow pack members over great distances in much the same way that humans use cell phones to locate friends or family members across the expansive voids of modern mega-malls. But while a ringing cell phone at a crowded shopping center is just another distraction to shoppers not party to the call, the coyote’s multipurpose melodies aide other species who can interpret communications meant as warning signals or announcements that all’s well.
Wily opportunists whose varied diet consists of up to 40% plant matter, coyotes typically utilize the remains of animals who have died in childbirth or of other natural causes. In doing so, they help the very people who vilify them. Kansas mammologist, Dr. Raymond Hall, made this observation on the usefulness of the coyote, “For one thing, he is a scavenger, and on watersheds which supply water for domestic use, he retrieves many a carcass for food that otherwise would decay and contaminate the water supply, or serve as a lure to filth-loving insects which carry the organisms of decay to man’s food.” In a deplorable display of sheer stupidity, those who poison coyotes have been known to spread toxic chemicals onto these carcasses, threatening everyone and everything living downstream.
Coyote catching a mouse
Photo copyright Jim Robertson
As part-time predators, coyotes’ area of expertise is rodent-getter, taking advantage of rapidly growing mice, vole and rabbit populations where they occur. When they do prey on larger animals, they usually select the injured or sick, acting as agents of nature’s greater compassion by reducing the suffering of an animal who would otherwise linger and die slowly. By removing weak or diseased animals from the gene pool, predators like coyotes, wolves and cougars secure healthy traits for future generations. And it’s been well-established that coyotes would much rather stick to their customary prey than resort to domestic livestock, yet the coyote is ever the scapegoat.
As author Jack Olsen put it, “One of the sorriest effects of the incessant propaganda war against the coyote and other predators is that it perpetuates beliefs that have already caused more than enough harm on the continent of North America.”
Whenever humane activists successfully ban various poisons and other cruel kill methods, sportsmen and their game department cronies are quick to counter any progress made by conducting competitive contest hunts. Much like fishing derbies, offering prizes and cash rewards to whoever kills the most coyotes, these bloody tournaments are becoming increasingly popular in many states. In a country built on draining wetlands, fencing grasslands and prairies and paving over everything in between, any animal who dares to thrive is an unwelcome rival.
Photo Copyright Jim Robertson
Olsen continues, “By simple dint of pounding over and over on the same points, the sheep industry has succeeded in characterizing all predators as deadly killers that would rather dine on lamb than anything else that lives on the range. In the sheep mandemonology of the coyote, every fallen sheep is brought down by coyotes. If Canis latrans comes across a dead sheep and plays his natural role as carrion-eater, the rancher shows teeth marks as proof of murder. If a sheep falls dead and the coyotes ignore the carcass, the sheep man charges an even more heinous crime: killing for pleasure. No matter what the predator does, a diabolical explanation is provided, and grandiose overstatement becomes the rule. Two lambs dying at birth are transformed into twenty lambs killed by coyotes.”
Exterminating established coyotes only allows younger, less experienced individuals to move into the vacated, unfamiliar territory to prey on the most obvious and abundant nutritional source: lambs or calves. Underscoring the futility of brutal “control”methods, the killing of coyotes paradoxically increases the food-per-coyote ratio, resulting in more pups each spring and higher pup survival rates–ultimately leading to more coyotes.
Anybody who has witnessed the harrowing ordeal suffered by an animal caught in a leg-hold trap should be appalled and outraged that trapping is still legal in a society that considers itself civilized. The continuation of this horrid, outdated practice in a country governed by the people suggests either that most folks have brain damage or that most of the voting populace is simply unaware of the terrible anguish and desperation a trapped animal goes through.
They must never have heard the cries of shock and pain when an animal first feels the steel jaws of a trap lock down onto his leg. They must never have looked into the weary eyes of a helpless victim who has been caught in a trap for days and nights on end. They must never have come across a leg that an animal had chewed off in order to escape a deadly fate, nor stopped to think how tormented and hopeless she must feel to take that desperate action. And they must never have seen an animal struggling through her life on three legs.
I’ve had more than my share of heart-wrenching experiences with the gruesome evils of trapping. On a walk near our home in Eastern Washington, my dog stepped into a leg-hold trap that clamped down onto his front paw, prying his toes apart. He cried out in terror and frantically tried to shake it off, biting at the trap, at his paw, and at me as I fought to open the mindless steel jaws. The trap continued to cut deeper into his tender flesh and my efforts caused him even more pain. Finally, after many harrowing minutes, I was able to loosen the torture device enough for him to pull his foot free.
Another dog I freed was caught in two leg-hold traps. One was latched onto her front leg, while the second gripped her hind leg, forcing her to remain standing for untold agonizing hours. Judging by how fatigued and dehydrated she was, she had been stuck there for several days. The sinister traps caused so much damage that a vet had to amputate one of her injured legs.
With no other hope of escape and feeling vulnerable to anyone that comes along, many trapped animals resort to amputating their own leg. Trappers callously label this grim act of despair “wring-off”. Truly, freedom is precious to any animal desperate enough to take this extreme step. But if they don’t bleed to death or die from infection, they spend the rest of their lives crippled and quite possibly unable to keep up with a demanding life in the wild. Unlike the fictional character “Little Big Man,” who was distraught to the brink of suicide when he found that an animal had chewed off its leg to escape one of his traps, most trappers who find a wring-off are indifferent to the suffering they caused as they begrudgingly pitch the chewed-off limb and reset their trap.
While I was camped near Bowron Lakes Provincial Park in B.C., Canada, in late March, my dog found just such a discarded limb–the front leg of a trapped lynx. In what has to be one of the more deceitful abuses of trust ever, free roaming animals– safely protected within the arbitrary boundaries of parks– lose all such protection and are deemed “fair game” for trapping as soon as they step across an invisible dividing line. Trappers consider the lands adjoining parks the most “productive” and will pay tens of thousands of dollars for permits to run trap-lines in those areas. I’ve had the displeasure of seeing three-legged coyotes near the North Cascades National Park, and within the Grand Tetons National Park.
Sidestepping the indisputable cruelty issue, pro-trapping factions try to perpetuate the myth that trapping is sustainable. But time and again entire populations of “furbearers” are completely trapped out of an area, often within a single season. The winter after I found wolf tracks in Alaska’s Katmai National Park, all seven members of a pack who had found a niche in and around that preserve were killed–permissibly “harvested”– by trappers. Though wolves are extinct or endangered in most of the U.S., 1,500 are legally trapped in Alaska each year.
Leg-hold traps are now banned in 88 countries, and some enlightened states have passed initiatives to outlaw trapping. Still, in many U.S. states, as in Canada, the twisted tradition is not only legal, it’s considered a sacred human right. Compassionate people everywhere must add their voice to the rising call to end this barbarity for good.
No animal should find themselves stuck in their steel jaws–not a bear or hawk, OR a “target” animal like a raccoon or coyote.
Photo Copyright Jim Robertson
TRAPPING HAS NO PLACE
IN A CIVILIZED WORLD!
Jim Robertson is the author of Exposing the Big Game: Living Targets of a Dying Sport. Please visit his website, Animals in the Wild.