Sport or slaughter? A Cortez coyote hunt raises hackles, but supporters say the animals are fair game

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A Cortez coyote hunt raises hackles, but supporters say the animals are fair game

A coyote-killing contest in the Cortez area has prompted a social-media furor as well as an online petition calling for an end to such competitions.

The Jan. 25 contest – originally dubbed the Blondies Trophy Room Second Annual Coyote Slam – had been sponsored by the hunting-themed downtown bar and eatery, but the establishment pulled its sponsorship after a barrage of criticism on Facebook.

CORTEZ COYOTE HUNT

Courtesy photo Colorado Parks and Wildlife

“It has come to our attention that we have offended many people in our community of Montezuma County with our involvement with an organized predator hunt,” read a statement posted on Blondies’ Facebook page. “Although predator hunting is completely legal and promoted by many states in the great nation and supported by many ranchers, farmers and other community members. We have decided not to host this event because a torn community can benefit nobody. . . If you personally don’t believe hunting is not for you or your way of life, then its simple don’t participate. . . Blondies values every patron regardless of their beliefs in life.”

The contest was held anyway at a location south of Cortez and drew 21 two-person teams who killed a total of 10 coyotes, according to a Facebook post on the “Four Corners Predator Callers” page.

The winners, who were not identified, shot two animals.

Sparking controversy

Few issues inspire more passionate feelings than those related to animal welfare. Locals on both sides of the debate were reluctant to speak to the press for fear of retaliation.

However, one contest organizer (called “Bob,” not his real name, in this article) agreed to speak to the Free Press on condition that his name not be published. He said the Facebook page for Four Corners Predator Callers, which promoted the event, received “probably 30 or 40 hate-mail messages” in a single week – “some pretty nasty, threatening things.” He said they came from people around the country and even overseas rather than from locals.

He said after Blondies decided not to sponsor the event, he stepped in because he didn’t like the idea of opposition stopping the contest.

“I’m for people expressing their point of view, but when it infringes on our rights, I don’t like that,” he said.

Wildlife-killing derbies – which commonly target coyotes and prairie dogs but sometimes wolves, bobcats, foxes, crows, and other creatures – are popular across the United States and legal almost everywhere. However, in December of last year, California’s Fish and Game Commission voted to make it illegal to offer any incentive or prize for killing predators. It was the first state to ban such competitions, according to the Associated Press.

CORTEZ COYOTE HUNT

Courtesy photo Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Shooting the animals remains legal, just not doing so in a contest.

In New Mexico, where a reported 20 or more coyote-killing derbies took place in 2014, a bipartisan bill has been introduced in the state legislature that would ban such contests.

The events have drawn considerable negative publicity. One competition, sponsored by a Las Lunas gun-store owner, brought down 60 coyotes in a single weekend.

Another, in December 2014, resulted in someone dumping 39 coyote carcasses around the outskirts of Las Cruces.

Opponents of such contests say they are a repugnant throwback to the days when Americans’ attitude toward wild animals was to kill nearly everything in sight. They say they do not constitute legitimate wildlife management because they don’t target particular animals such as a coyote that is eating someone’s lambs. Contests show disrespect to wildlife and the environment, opponents say, and encourage bloodlust and waste.

Supporters say the contests offer a chance to test their hunting skills in a social setting, that they are a rural tradition, an enjoyable pastime, and a boon to farmers and ranchers plagued by coyotes or prairie dogs. They see opponents as hypocrites who have no problem with pigs and cattle being slaughtered for food but become enraged over hunting.

Contests face mounting opposition in a number of states. Last fall, a lawsuit filed by several conservation and wildlife nonprofits prompted the Bureau of Land Management to cancel a permit for a “predator derby” targeting wolves, coyotes, and other species near Salmon, Idaho. The event had been slated to take place on public land three days a year for five years.

In Oregon, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Project Coyote, and a private citizen filed a lawsuit against the organizer of an annual coyote-hunting contest, claiming it and a related betting competition amounted to illegal gambling. The event’s organizer settled the suit by agreeing never to host another such contest in Oregon.

Contests are popular

Colorado’s derbies seem to have drawn less media attention, but they take place on a regular basis. For instance, the sixth annual “Heart of the Plains” coyote- killing contest in tiny Hugo was held in December 2014 and drew 27 teams who shot a total of 68 animals, according to that event’s Facebook page, which features photos of rows of furry bodies.

Predator hunts (rather than prairie dog- shooting contests) seem to be growing in popularity. Contestants use devices to lure the animals with noises that mimic the sound of prey in distress, such as a wounded rabbit, or pups yipping in fear.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Joe Lewandowski said the state has few regulations regarding such contests, although, “We don’t sponsor or condone or encourage these sort of things.”

Coyotes may be hunted year-round in Colorado with either a small-game or a furbearer license, and private landowners may kill them, without a license, on their land if the animals are threatening livestock or pets. But Colorado, unlike most states, limits the number of animals that can be taken during competitions.

“In a contest-type situation, our only stipulation is that one person can’t take more five animals per contest,” Lewandowski said.

There is no requirement about what must be done with the carcasses. “If you’re hunting a deer, you can’t just cut the head off and keep the rack,” Lewandowski noted. However, with a coyote, he said, “People can shoot it and leave it. You don’t have to use any of the parts. People don’t eat coyote meat – at least no one I know does.”

‘Wrong on so many levels’

CORTEZ COYOTE HUNT

Courtesy photo Colorado Parks and Wildlife

The Cortez contest prompted a Front Range woman, Jules Elise, to start a petition at change.org calling for an end to such events. “These contests are barbaric, unethical, and wrong on so many levels,” the petition states, asking signers to email the Colorado Wildlife Commission that wildlife-hunting contests “are not an acceptable method of wildlife management.”

“When people hear about these issues, they say, ‘Somebody should do something about this’ and then it doesn’t go any further, so I thought, ‘Why not me?’ ” Elise said in a phone interview. She said she hopes the petition – which at press time had more than 10,000 signatures – would at least lead to more oversight of wildlife-hunting contests.

“A lot of times there is not a CPW official there checking to see if everything is legal,” she said. “People come from out of state – a lot of people go from state to state; this is one of their hobbies. It doesn’t seem like there is anybody there to enforce any regulations. There is nobody to enforce if people have licenses or if they’re killing only on private land.”

However, Lewandowski said if a competition takes place on private land, there are few regulations to enforce. Private landowners do not need a license to shoot coyotes on their property, and they can also designate “agents” to do so.

“If people are going to hunt coyotes, we encourage them to have a license. That being said, a landowner can have agents to control coyotes on a piece of property. If you are a landowner’s agent you don’t need a license, but people need to be careful about that. You do need permission from the landowner [to hunt on private land].” Lewandowski said the landowner must be willing to vouch for the agents and must make sure people know where they are so they don’t hunt on someone else’s private property.

Bob, the organizer of the Cortez shoot, said a CPW officer did come to the check-in site to make sure everything was in order. Bob made competitors sign a waiver saying they would abide by all Colorado laws. He said no one restricted the contestants from hunting on public lands as well as private because that is legal.

He said photos from other hunts may have given a misimpression of what the local contest was like. “People are seeing these pictures on the Internet of hundreds of coyotes piled up. That’s not how it is at all. We had 21 teams, 42 people, and 10 coyotes were harvested.

“The same amount of coyotes would have been killed whether we did the hunt or not. All those same people, they go every weekend [and hunt coyotes]. We just wanted to gather together and do it as an event.”

He said hunting coyotes is not easy. “They’re very intelligent and very smart. It’s a sport. It’s a challenge.”

Bob said it’s only in recent years that such contests have become controversial, largely because of exposure on social media. “The volunteer fire department in Dove Creek has put one on for as long as I can remember. I heard they had 60 teams last year. It’s never been that big of an issue until everything got on Facebook and everybody has the opportunity across the world to comment.“

He said he knows that many people find the photos of piled carcasses offensive, so he chose not to post them on Four Corners Predator Callers. “We don’t need any more negative stuff.” However, he said, it’s natural for hunters to want to show off their successes.

But Elise, who posted a photo of heaped-up bodies with her online petition, said even though that photo didn’t come from the Cortez hunt, it was a real photo of a derby in Elko, Nev. “They got five coyotes last year in Cortez, 10 this year. Will there be 20 next year?” she asked. “The more hunters you get, the more coyotes you will probably kill.”

‘Animals Nobody Loves’

Coyotes are common throughout the United States; the extirpation of wolves from most of the landscape is believed to have enabled the proliferation of these smaller canines. The image of a howling coyote is an icon in the Southwest, yet canis latrans is reviled by many ranchers and farmers for killing calves, lambs, and poultry. Some estimates say that coyotes are responsible for half of all cattle losses caused by predation nationwide, valued in the millions of dollars.

Coyotes are one of a few wild species that have become comfortable living near humans and have ventured into urban and suburban areas, just as humans have moved into their territory. They rarely attack people and when they do, the wounds are generally minor; however, particularly if people feed them, coyotes can become bold and aggressive. They can and do eat pets.

Internet sites promoting coyote killing frequently refer to the practice as necessary to protect livestock, deer, even people. Yet it’s not clear that hunting coyotes does much, if anything, to keep their numbers down. Over the past century and a half, coyotes by the millions have been poisoned, trapped, shot from air and land, run down by dogs, and gassed in their dens, but the clever, adaptable creatures survive.

“There are few cases where a human hand has been laid more heavily on a wild creature,” wrote author Ronald Rood in a 1971 book titled “Animals Nobody Loves.” However, he continued, the coyote “appears to thrive on everything man has thrown at it. It is one of the few predatory animals on the face of our earth that is actually extending its range.”

“One of the first things we all learn in biology class is that coyotes are a very resilient species and if they are killed, they usually produce more,” Lewandowski said. “Wolves were basically extirpated in the United States and the same was tried with coyotes over the years without any effect.

“Coyotes are now found in every county in the lower 48.”

He said CPW is not monitoring the effects of contests or hunting on coyotes because the agency “is confident that the coyote population is very healthy.” “A one-off contest like this is not going to have any population- level effect,” he said. Elise likewise said concerted efforts to slaughter coyotes just increase their population because the animals respond by producing more pups. A stable pack will include an alpha male and female who are the only ones breeding. If they are killed, the younger animals will all start to breed.

One hint that this counter-intuitive claim could be valid came in 2011, when a funding shortfall for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program (which kills problem species) resulted in two months less of their coyote- killing work in Montana. That year, the number of domestic sheep that coyotes killed dropped by 1,900, according to The Wildlife News, an environmental publication.

“What [a contest] does to disrupt the pack is catastrophic,” Elise said, “and it causes an increase in the coyote population in the area. it’s not sound wildlife management and there should be regulations on that.”

She added that if people were to actually succeed in removing most coyotes, there would be an increase in rabbits and rodents, common coyote prey. “Rodents carry far more disease than coyotes do,” she said.

Lewandowski said he can’t say whether mice or other rodents might increase if coyotes were reduced to very low numbers. “There is no way to answer that. It’s pure speculation,” he said.

Ecosystem instability?

But a 1995 research paper titled, “Effects of Coyote Control on Their Prey: A Review,” looked at the results of several studies done in areas where coyotes had been removed. It concluded that where coyotes were consistently culled from the environment, there were “population- level changes” in the numbers of rodents after nine months or more.

For instance, a three-year study in western Texas done on four 12,000-acre sites found that after coyote numbers were cut in half, the diversity of rodent species decreased – but rodent density and biomass surged, as did the percentage of kangaroo rats and the density of jackrabbits (which jumped threefold). The researcher said this could actually increase competition with livestock for forage and lead to “instability within the ecosystem.”

Coyote-hunters say the animals are becoming so numerous, they are harming deer and elk populations, but research does not show a conclusive effect. Biologists say predators can benefit overall herd health because they cull sick and weak animals. Information on CPW’s web site cites predation as one of a dozen different factors affecting deer population. It also says reducing predators tends to work only in the short term.

A six-year study in Idaho published in 2011 found that removing coyotes did not significantly increase the mule-deer population.

And a study on a small site in Texas found that reducing coyote numbers increased the survival of white-tailed deer fawns, but after five years the deer population crashed because of lack of food. That researcher concluded that that “coyote predation can be an important factor in white-tailed deer herd stability.”

‘Like feral hogs’

Bob said he’s heard of such research, but he remains skeptical. “I’m not a scientist and I know there’s a lot of people that have been saying that [coyotes breed more when hunted], but I don’t see how you could leave them unchecked.

“I have a piece of property north of Dove Creek, about 800 acres, and the amount of coyotes is unreal. Everywhere you go there’s tracks.”

He said coyotes are definitely having an effect on deer and elk.

“In the last year or two, the elk and deer have not been there. The coyotes push the deer and elk out and that has a huge impact on hunting, which brings in a lot of money every year for the community.”

Colorado’s coyote population is so plentiful, he said, “We could hold a tournament every weekend here and not affect them. They’re like feral hogs in Texas – people are having to exterminate those.”

Bob said he plans on having more derbies and will definitely hold one next year. “Until there’s a law that says we can’t, it’s something we enjoy and are going to do despite the criticism. We don’t feel like we’re doing anything wrong. It’s something that we love to do. And I believe it helps the ranchers and the other wildlife.”

He said he respects people’s right to oppose the hunts, but, “It’s hard for us to hear somebody in Denver saying our way of life is wrong when they live in the city.”

But Elise said she understands the issues surrounding predators and rural life. “The person who notified me of the coyote-hunting contest lives in Cortez, so I am aware of the local issues and the ramifications.

“As a shareholder in Colorado wildlife, I feel like I should have equal say over how the wildlife are treated and used in Colorado.”

Elise said her petition is not an attempt to end hunting. “This is not anti-hunting or anti-gun. This is about unethical hunting. Most hunters that I’ve talked to are against hunting competitions because even they feel it is unethical when you have an event where mass amount of animals are killed.

“This is 2015. We aren’t shooting bison out of train windows any more and we shouldn’t be doing these contests, either.”

Bob said he can envision a day when animal-killing derbies will be outlawed. “The wildlife official who came out here told me they’ve been meeting about this, so it’s being discussed at the state level.

“People like me are very competitive. The competition is what brings the people to these hunts. It would be sad if we couldn’t get together and have these things.”

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