Last February my daughter, Hollis, and I were watching TV in the living room of our small cabin in the mountains above Boulder, Colorado, when our dogs started barking and howling. Looking outside, I saw the reason for their outburst. Running through the snow in my fenced-in backyard was a huge, beautiful coyote. In its mouth was one of my three fluffy chickens.
I let the dogs out, and the coyote jumped the fence, brown chicken feathers flying everywhere. But investigating the coop, I realized that it had already won. Somehow, without me or the dogs hearing, canis latrans had killed and run off with not one of our birds but all three—and it had done so without digging a hole or tearing apart the coop, but climbing our six-foot-high fence, and then climbing into the coop not once but three times.
Scratching my head, I realized what hunters, wildlife managers, and coyote advocates have known for ages: These animals, affectionately called “song dogs,” are a savvy and cunning species. Yet these qualities, which have earned them distinction as one of the most resilient predators in North America, have also made them the target of massive, indiscriminate killing.
Spoiler alert: Coyote hunting is rampant in the U.S. It has been since the 1800s, when Western ranchers exterminated large native carnivores to create predator-free grazing.
According to Karen E. Lange, writing for the Humane Society, Congress passed the Animal Damage Control Act in 1931, giving government the authority to kill wild animals deemed a threat to agriculture. Coyotes, with their enormous numbers and big appetites, were one of the first to be targeted. Yet despite efforts including poisoning, trapping, and aerial gunning, coyote numbers kept rising. In just one example, Lange reports that after 60 to 70 percent of coyotes in an area of southeastern Colorado were killed, “their pack size and density rebounded in just eight months.”
As a result, more hunting continued, including bounties for coyote pelts. Today, traditional bounties are phasing out in most states. But Casey Pheiffer, senior director of wildlife, public policy, and advocacy for the Humane Society of the United States, says that a different kind of coyote eradication method, known as “coyote killing contests,” in which hunters win cash and prizes for the biggest coyote or most coyotes killed, are on the rise in hundreds of U.S. communities.
A good example is a contest that took place in Modoc County, California, in February 2013. It was sponsored by the Pit River Rod and Gun Club and the Adin Supply Company. Registration was $50 per two-person team, with teams consisting of two adults, “and/or” two junior hunters, age 15 or younger.
Guidelines on adinsupply.com listed that the intent of the event was to “manage coyote populations in the Big Valley area.” It also stated that although “no geographic boundaries have been made, it is [the organizers’] hope that this goal will be reached.”
By early February, all major components of Coyote Drive 7 were in place. But angry citizens, including members of the Animal Welfare Institute and Project Coyote, crowded into the Sacramento Fish and Game office, claiming that in failing to set boundaries, organizers would create a scenario where hunters could “scatter everywhere,” and kill coyotes non-discriminately. They also worried that uneducated hunters—perhaps those “juniors”—might inadvertently kill California’s lone collared grey wolf, “OR7.”
Laird Harrison, reporting for the public radio station KQED in northern California, wrote that despite additional protests, the contest went off without a hitch. “OR7” survived, and some 240 people entered, nearly doubling the town of Adin’s population of 279.
According to the Fish and Game website, there is no season for coyotes in California, nor bag limits.
Despite California's lack of hunting restrictions, Coyote Drive 7’s main organizer, Steve Gagnon, says the state's coyote population is currently estimated to number 70,000. He says there isn't a good management plan to control the exploding population.
“Nobody takes the time to learn our lifestyle up here,” he told me, “but we’re ranchers and the coyotes impact our livestock. These drives, which encourage good sportsmanship and conservation, are our contribution to managing predators.”
When I emailed him asking how many coyotes the drive had resulted in killing, he wrote back: “We don’t have a number. Too many participants left for home.”
He also said that a percentage of the funds the event generated will most certainly go back into conservation. “This is the thing no one wants to write about us,” he said. “But we regularly do things like building ‘guzzlers’ for wildlife to drink from where creek springs have dried up and ‘plant’ pheasants in areas where the coyotes have decimated them.”
On the phone, Gagnon seems like a perfectly reasonable guy. But the fact remains that his coyote drives, going for seven years now, enrage animal advocates. According to Pheiffer, the number of protesters is growing, and could one day mean the impact the future of these contests.
In addition to the outcry over Coyote Drive 7, last February, a New Mexico advocacy group helped create a bill that would criminalize organizing, sponsoring, arranging, or holding an animal-killing contest in the state. Representative Nate Cole took the bill to committee, where it passed through the House Judiciary Committee. On February 26, the bill was defeated with a House of Representatives vote of 38-30. But the fact that it even made it to the House shows progress, says Pheiffer.
In other states, such as California, she adds, Fish and Wildlife departments are starting to re-examine the way they manage predators in general. As with most things governed by a bureaucracy, real change could take eons. But Pheiffer says, “There’s no doubt grassroots organizations”—keyed in to these contests—are making it harder for organizers to keep holding them because “lots of citizens contacting their decision-makers in opposition definitely puts a damper on their best intentions.”