On a Sunday evening in June, camo-clad men chat and laugh by pickups next to a restaurant near Billings, Montana. There is a faint but unmistakable odor of decay coming from a large trash bin across the parking lot—the just-weighed bodies of 29 coyotes, some of them rotting for two days in 90-degree heat. It’s the close of the local Mule Deer Foundation chapter’s fourth annual weekend hunting derby. The motto: “Save a fawn.”
The winning team killed just five coyotes but won the event on the flip of a coin. The coin toss, introduced to discourage cheating, decided that the biggest share of the prize money—half of $1,200—would go to the contestants not with the two largest animals, but with the two smallest. “We were lucky,” says a dad, not named for reasons of privacy, who brought along his two school-age children, dressed in hunting gear just like him. “We found a den.” That meant finding pups. Shot dead, the littlest pups won his family the prize. Everyone is smiling. “It’s fun!” says his daughter. Her dad has a fellow contestant take a picture of him in his branded camo, so he can show the company that made it and maybe get a free hat. Then he tells his kids to get in the truck. They’re reluctant to leave. “If you don’t, we won’t have time to go bowling,” he warns.
The man the coin toss deprived of the win says it was his and his teammate’s best year ever for the total number of coyotes killed—13. He’s satisfied with his team’s marksmanship, but troubled by the pups who died. They require no skill to kill; the man just can’t take any pride in it. “Last year, I killed one that was 21 inches from tip to tail—it hadn’t even had a chance to live,” he says. It’s worse, though, to kill the mother and let the pups starve, he says, as happened this year when his team shot four lactating females but could not find their young. “I feel bad, but it’s for a cause.”
Killing a pup means sparing a fawn, or so he’s been led to believe: The message from the local chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation is that every coyote left to reproduce in the spring means less game for hunters in the fall. Never mind that research, much of it done just a short distance up the Yellowstone River by biologist Robert Crabtree, shows that the killing of coyotes does not reduce their numbers long-term or protect game animals or livestock. Having evolved in the presence of a bigger, stronger predator, the wolf, coyotes are amazingly resilient. Kill some every year—in a process wildlife management agencies call “mowing the lawn”—and they just keep coming back.
Despite this research, the men are already planning for 2019, maybe holding the event earlier so families aren’t on summer vacations and it’s not so hot. (Turnout at this year’s derby is lower than 2017, when 49 coyotes were killed.) There’s a consensus the coin toss has got to go, but no discussion about whether the event should be held at all.
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As coyotes have spread across the U.S. with the near extinction of wolves, and native carnivores such as foxes and bobcats have rebounded from hunting, wildlife killing contests have increased in popularity. Today they take place in at least 42 states, often in the winter, when animals’ fur is thickest and can sometimes be sold. The Humane Society of the United States and other groups stand against these pointless, wasteful events that promote killing and animal cruelty for cash and prizes—akin to blood sports such as dogfighting and cockfighting. Advocates have urged event sponsors to withdraw their support.
Now, the HSUS and Project Coyote have co-founded the National Coalition to End Wildlife Killing Contests. The group, with 30 members so far, has launched a nationwide campaign to ban such events by increasing public awareness and working toward policy change at the local and state levels.
“Killing coyotes will yield you only dead coyotes,” says Jill Fritz, HSUS director of wildlife protection. “It’s killing for the sake of killing, for the fun, for the bragging rights. The amount of visceral hatred for these native carnivores is disturbing.”
Coyotes and other fur-bearing, nongame animals (those not killed by hunters to eat) have long been considered pests, with few if any restrictions on their killing. In the past, bounties were offered. Hunters turned in animals' ears for money (Utah still offers $50 per coyote). Tasked by Congress with “animal damage control,” the federal USDA Wildlife Services program started killing as many coyotes as possible in 1931 and currently uses aerial gunning and poisons to kill tens of thousands each year (68,913 in 2017). In 1957, the first documented wildlife killing contest took place, organized by ranchers in Chandler, Arizona.
In the decades since, the contests' focus has not changed: Participants are encouraged to exterminate animals. For coyotes, they call them ’yotes and kill them with long-range rifles on tripods, fitted with telescopic sights and night vision. They lure them into range with calls of wounded prey or distressed pups and shoot the mothers who come to rescue their young. Then they post their exploits on Facebook and YouTube, and celebrate with parties.
Many hunters in the U.S. oppose wildlife killing contests, which they believe tarnish the image of their sport and stir up anti-hunting sentiment. “Competitive killing seems to lack the appreciation of and the respect for wildlife fundamental to any current definition of an ethical hunter,” says Jim Posewitz, author of the widely read handbook Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting. The Boone and Crockett Club, founded by former President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter and conservationist, rejects such events.
Most mainstream hunting organizations, however, have yet to condemn wildlife killing contests. Instead, groups like local Mule Deer Foundation chapters encourage them, so that coyotes won’t hunt and kill animals their members want to hunt and kill. Sporting goods stores, gun manufacturers and hunting gear companies support the killing with sponsorships, prizes and free swag. Gun shops donate AR-15s. Some local governments hold contests, and chambers of commerce and American Legion posts present the events as feel-good community fundraisers—a strategy recommended on the World Championship Coyote Killing Contest website.
Two states—South Carolina and Georgia—have actually launched contests to promote coyote killing. South Carolina’s Coyote Harvest Incentive Program has made a game out of it, tagging 16 coyotes each year, releasing them back into the wild and then offering a lifetime hunting license to those who kill a tagged coyote and bring in the body as proof. The Georgia Coyote Challenge invites hunters to send in photos of coyotes they kill, up to 10 during each of three two-month periods, and be entered into a drawing. In June, someone won a Bergara B-14 Hunter model rifle.
That same month, the Humane Society of the United States and other members of the coalition sent a letter to Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources and the state’s governor opposing the 2-year-old challenge, which an agency deer biologist admitted to a local TV station does little to reduce the number of coyotes.
A study found much the same in Vermont, where a group called Protect Our Wildlife, formed by HSUS district leader Brenna Galdenzi, protested an event in December 2016, then joined forces with HSUS state director Barry Londeree to appeal to the legislature. There had been protests before, but this time was different, says Londeree. The legislature asked the state’s fish and wildlife department to write a report on whether contests worked. This past January, the verdict came back, just as the announcement of a new statewide coyote killing contest was alarming residents: Contests have no effect on coyote populations. No one spoke in favor of the events at a hearing (a few hunters testified against them), and the legislature banned coyote killing contests soon after.
Similar efforts to stop killing contests are emerging across the country. In New Mexico, a campaign started after a family taking a hike in December 2014 stumbled upon 39 dead coyotes dumped on state land. In their mouths were blocks of wood inscribed with the words, “December 21,” the date of a recent killing contest. The family called Kevin Bixby, executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center, a member of the national coalition. Bixby called the press.
In 2017, New Mexico state legislators introduced a bill to ban coyote killing contests. The law passed in the Senate with bipartisan support, but it failed to gain a hearing in the House. With support from the HSUS, the City of Albuquerque condemned the contests. Advocates plan to reintroduce the bill to ban contests in the state during the next session, in 2019.
“I am going to be very surprised if the bill does not pass both houses and get signed into law,” Bixby says.
In Nevada, Project Coyote volunteer Jana Hofeditz is working with HSUS Nevada state director Jeff Dixon to lay the groundwork for legislative action. Whenever she sees an upcoming contest, Hofeditz draws a circle with a line through it on the flier, adds her name and contact information, photocopies it and distributes it to local businesses. That approach led to a conversation with a woman who had organized a contest in Battle Mountain. After Hofeditz explained how coyotes do not have to be shot to manage their numbers or protect livestock, the woman cancelled.
Hofeditz tried the same approach with the owner of the Wayside Bar in Reno, who holds an annual contest. It didn’t work, so she and other advocates protested the event last January. That evening, they returned to watch the weigh-in: 30 to 40 dead coyotes and one bobcat unloaded from pickups. “They just weighed them and tossed them over a fence, like they were nothing,” she says.
In Massachusetts, a newly launched coyote contest made the front page of the Cape Cod Times in February. Coyotes have been living on the Cape for decades, but it was not until this year that Powderhorn Outfitters, a Hyannis gun shop, launched its “first annual” killing contest (the second such event in the entire state). Scores of people protested, including Cape researcher Jonathan Way.
Such contests are a product of misunderstanding, he says. “It’s unscientific, it’s unsporting, it’s cruel and it’s unnecessary.”
In Montana, where cattle and sheep ranchers wield great influence, HSUS state director Wendy Hergenraeder says killing contests are still too accepted for protests to work. But when Hergenraeder learns of an event, she lets advocates know so that they can contact sponsors and urge them to withdraw support. When volunteers from Footloose Montana, a coalition member, emailed and called the sponsors listed for a January contest in Big Sandy, an insurance agency said it had never agreed to back the event: “We are not, nor will we be, a sponsor of the coyote derby.”
The bodies of the 29 coyotes in the trash bin near Billings lie in a tangled heap, along with a pair of work gloves, a red plastic waste basket and an empty donut box. Their summer coats are worthless, but with the careless way some of the animals were shot, their fur could not have been salvaged anyway.
The men standing in the parking have gathered here in full view, unashamed—people in cars passing on the interstate a little ways off can see the scene if they look; customers come and go from the bar and grill. The event is perfectly legal, publicly advertised on the chapter’s Facebook page. But there is that odor coming from the bin—that smell, and the regret that some of the men carry.
A short distance to the east in 1806, William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition carved his name into a sandstone outcrop above the Yellowstone River. He wrote in his journal about the bounty of the surrounding grasslands, an ecosystem scientists are only now beginning to fully understand (spelling is Clark's): “For me to mention or give an estimate of the differant Spcies of wild animals on this river, particularly Buffalow, Elk, Antelopes & Wolves, would be increditable.” This is a beautiful land, a blessed land. As the evening sun lights the range and rolling hills, they glow emerald green. All by itself this ecosystem brought forth vast multitudes of animals. Humans did not have to intervene to create that abundance, slaughtering predators to protect their prey. People did not have to kill.