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Killing coyotes: Nevada polarized over the growing movement to ban contest hunts
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Killing coyotes: Nevada polarized over the growing movement to ban contest hunts

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Coyote

A coyote (Canis latrans) surveys its territory near the Ruby Marshes.

The coyote you may occasionally see trotting by on a quest for a rabbit or a vole has no idea it is the subject of so much controversy.

Here’s the question: Should coyote hunting contests be banned in Nevada?

Nevada Wildlife Commissioners recently spent four hours on the evenly-split debate, which included about 600 emails on the subject.

“It’s a really polarized issue,” said Nevada Wildlife Commission member David McNinch.

In the past few years New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Washington, Massachusetts and Vermont have all banned coyote killing contests. California banned them in 2014. In 2015 and again in 2016, the Nevada Wildlife Commission discussed banning the contests, but the issue was dropped each time. In 2019 the Nevada legislature considered a bill to ban the contests, but the bill was set aside.

On March 2 of this year, the Clark County Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution recommending that the Nevada Division of Wildlife “take immediate action to ban all wildlife killing contests in the State of Nevada.”

On March 17, the Elko County Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution saying that “Elko County supports the continuation of coyote hunting contests and asks the Nevada Wildlife Commission to reject the appeals to outlaw the hunts.”

In the past, the World Championship Coyote Calling Contest has rotated between Elko and locations in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. Now with coyote calling contests prohibited in those other three states, the invitation-only event may be held more regularly in Elko. Other coyote calling contests throughout the region may also move to Nevada.

“In Elko County, these coyote calling contests do have an economic value to the local economy. Gas, rooms, restaurants, and the like, do have a considerable economic impact,” Elko County Advisory Board to Manage Wildlife Chairman Jim Cooney told the Nevada Wildlife Commission.

In Nevada and generally across the West, coyotes are classified as unprotected, meaning there is no season and no license or permit is needed, and there is no limit on the number that can be killed.

A moral issue

McNinch has said he is not in favor of what he has called “wildlife killing contests” and he does not want Nevada to be known as the place which supports them.

“Whether we like it or not, even though the vast majority of sportsmen don’t participate in them, the negative connotations associated with killing contests reflect negatively on hunting and sportsmen and serve to erode public support and trust for them and consequently NDOW,” he said. “This is contrary to our mission.”

“What does a contest that enumerates the killing of an animal — whether we like that animal or not — say about our humanity and our relationship with wildlife we are tasked with managing and/or conserving?”

Some of the people who spoke against coyote killing contests during the March 20 public comment session said the science shows that contests do not actually have population control benefits, but the bottom line for many was a moral issue.

“I think for a lot of people, the whole idea of the mental image of bodies upon bodies in the back of a truck is distasteful,” said Wildlife Commission member Kerstan Hubbs.

“Not only are these contests horrific, unethical and disrespectful, but they paint traditional hunters in a very, very negative way that I think will overall hurt the hunting community,” said Cheyanne Neuffer of Reno.

“I believe that the only reason there is not more public outrage around these events, is that people do not even realize they’re happening,” said Janice Medema of Henderson. “Over the years I have followed some of these events on social media and seen the horrific posts that these people post publicly, and I would encourage all of you to check that out.”

McNinch said he would want any prohibitions to focus narrowly on events like the coyote killing contests. There would be no prohibitions on calling or hunting coyotes, on gathering in groups to hunt coyotes, on killing coyotes to protect livestock or for conservation or disease prevention, and there would be no prohibitions on events like big buck contests or fishing derbies.

A clash of cultures

At an Elko County Commission meeting three days earlier, commissioners said the disagreements which people have over hunting issues is a clash between cultures. Commissioner Rex Steninger commented on a letter that Spring Creek resident Rich Sandoz wrote about his thoughts on the Wildlife Commission being bombarded with comments on bear hunting and trapping issues.

“He explained it as, the dispute between hunters and those wanting to protect all wildlife comes down to a difference in cultures. We have two distinctly different cultures, and neither understands the logic of the other. But that should be OK. We should be able to accept and live with different cultures.

“But the animal rights side is unwilling to tolerate the culture of the hunters. And Mr. Sandoz continued in his letter, ‘Nothing can generate such tragic human consequences as to judge one culture by the arbitrary standards of another. … Its name is cultural bigotry.’ And that really hit home for me. It is bigotry.

“These people are refusing to recognize what we’ve done out here in the West throughout history,” Steninger said. “It’s the liberal philosophy that just galls me. When they don’t like guns, they’re not content with not owning guns, they don’t want any of us to own guns. And it’s the same thing here with these two items. They just are not tolerant of any other view except their own.”

The other hunting issue that wildlife commissioners talked about last week was a petition asking for a prohibition against using dogs for hunting black bears. The commissioners approved a resolution saying they oppose “recent efforts by special interest groups to prohibit the use of hounds via a petition before the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners. Such petitions, being based on emotional rhetoric rather than scientific fact, are inconsistent with the values and culture of rural Nevada and especially of the residents of Elko County.”

The Wildlife Commission spent over two hours discussing the issue and listening to public comments during their meeting on March 19, but they ended up voting 5-2 to continue allowing hunters to use dogs for black bear hunts.

Coyote management

At the start of the Wildlife Commission’s discussion of coyote hunting contests, commission member Kerstan Hubbs said, “My big question, and I think it should be the big question — does the department see a biological benefit to these contests?”

NDOW Director Tony Wasley said the science of predators and prey is complicated.

“It’s clearly a complicated relationship, but I believe that based on the broad landscape over which many of these contests occur, and the lack of evidence of data suggesting that the prey species are in fact predator limited, which isn’t always the case, I think it would be a tough statement to say there is a biological benefit from this level of removal,” Wasley said.

Coyote Bounty Program

In this June 11, 2009 photo, a coyote watches from an enclosure as a cow walks past at the Millville Predator Research Facility in Millville, Utah.

“I think it’s a fair and accurate statement to say that the department, from the data and observations that we have, we see neither a beneficial effect of these contests on the prey species or a detrimental biological impact on the predator abundance,” Wasley said.

People involved with coyote killing contests often say the contests help reduce the numbers of these predators which are a threat to livestock, wildlife, pets and people. Some of the people who spoke against coyote hunting contests during Saturday’s public comment said that the contests do not help with this, and can actually have negative effects.

“As a PhD wildlife scientist and former state biologist in New Mexico, where killing contests were banned without negative repercussions, I state confidently that wildlife killing contests offer no management benefits whatsoever,” said Michelle Lute, the Project Coyote national carnivore conservation manager. “They beget chaos across the landscape, with unregulated killing of predators that do not need such control. Predators self-regulate and have done so based on compensatory mechanisms, predators, and native prey availability for millennia.”

Jeff Dixon, Nevada director for the Humane Society of the United States, said “NDOW on its website states that the removal of coyotes should be limited to chronic problem animals.”

“Not only are these contests unsporting and wasteful, but they are also ecologically harmful and deeply at odds with the principles of the North American Wildlife Conservation law, which requires that wildlife only be killed for a legitimate purpose,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“There are definitely localized impacts from systematic killing of coyotes which will affect family structures, and may result in increased conflicts with livestock, pets and people,” Donnelly said.

“This is a question of whether as a society we will move forward from a barbaric and anachronistic practice which many states have banned. Coyote killing contests have no place here, and most Nevadans find them repellant.”

Don Molde talked about a five-year Wildlife Services coyote project.

“Over five years they killed about 1200 coyotes,” Molde said. “In the fifth year of the project, Wildlife Services killed about three times as many coyotes in the last year as they did in the first year. The litter size tripled in the area at about the third year. The average age of coyotes killed by the fifth year dropped by half, and there was a male predominance. So basically what happened is Wildlife Services in five years had more coyotes than they started with, and they were juveniles with a male predominance, just what you don’t want.”

“The commission has spent $4.4 million since 2000 killing coyotes, and you’ve killed over 10,300 coyotes,” Molde said. “Deer numbers in the same time have declined from 132,000 in 2000 to the present level of 93,000. So you’ve lost about 35,000 deer while spending over $4 million to kill over 10,000 coyotes.

When coyotes are killed in one area, other coyotes move in to take over the territory, and there is evidence that lower population densities can lead to bigger litters of coyote pups.

Dan Flores, author of “Coyote America,” said in an interview published in National Geographic that coyotes listen to howls and yips to monitor the surrounding population.

“If their howls are not answered by other packs, it triggers an autogenic response that produces large litters,” Flores said. He said the normal litter size is five to six pups, but litters can go as high as 12 to 16 pups.

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Anti-hunting?

Several of the people who spoke in support of the coyote killing contests said the opponents actually have a bigger anti-hunting agenda.

“I think this is, as some people say, the camel’s nose under the tent,” Elko CAB Chairman Jim Cooney said.

However, many of the people who were critical of coyote hunting contests insisted they are not anti-hunting.

“Let me be clear, we are not anti-hunting,” Lute said. “You may hear concerns about the slippery slope. But that is actually a logical fallacy where a course of action is rejected because with little or no evidence one insists that it will lead to a chain reaction resulting in an undesirable end.

“I invite you to look at the evidence. My body of work is published and available online. Project Coyote’s work is on our website. You will not find anti-hunting rhetoric or action. You will find evidence of why killing contests are unjustified.”

Standing up for contests

Many of the advocates of the coyote contests were upset that the anti-contest people continually refer to them as “coyote killing contests.” They said this like calling any hunting or fishing event a “killing” event.

The advocates said coyote calling is a legitimate sport that takes a lot of skill.

“It takes extreme skill and technique to call in a coyote,” said Larry Staley. “It’s not easy. People that think it is, they’re 100 percent wrong. If they think it is easy, I dare you to go to a sporting store, pick up a hand call and go try to call a coyote, because you won’t do it.”

“Arguably, coyotes are one of the most challenging animals to hunt due to their paranoid demeanor, heightened senses, speed, and target size,” Geoff Nemnich wrote in a 2019 blog post. Nemnich is a two-time world champion and national champion coyote caller.

Coyote Fur

In this Feb. 2 photo, coyote pelts are displayed for sale at a trappers' auction in Herkimer, N.Y. 

Contest advocates said the images of many dead coyotes which can be found online do not reflect the reality experienced by many coyote callers. Many people who participate in a contest may only kill two or one or no coyotes in a day. A highly skilled caller like Nemnich may kill at the most 15 coyotes in a day. At a contest with many participants, there will be rows of dead coyotes at the end of the day.

Supporters questioned why coyote hunting events were being singled out as fundamentally different from other hunting and fishing events.

“How is it fair to solely go after one group of like-minded individuals for something that we like to enjoy?” Staley asked. “If you’re going to ban coyote calling contests, that are an unprotected species in our state, then you’ll have to stop the multi-million-dollar industry of bass fishing tournaments, where there’s bass that are brought in that die in the live well. There are big buck contests held in almost every small town in the state of Nevada where you bring your biggest buck in and you might win some cash. You’re also going to have to stop doing the Nevada wildlife record book. You’re going to have to stop doing that, because there are belt buckles given to the top three species in our state.”

“My fear, if I post a picture of me and my kids with 20 fish on a stringer, how is that any different than somebody with 20 coyotes stacked up?” Larry Allen said. “When is this going to stop? Eventually that’s going to be turned around to me.”

Fauna Tomlinson of Project Coyote said there is a clear difference between coyote contests and fishing other forms of hunting.

“The difference between a fishing derby, a deer derby, and a chukar derby? Easy, there are limits, and you eat them.”

Many people, however, felt this dividing line between a good and a bad form of hunting is based on opinion and emotion.

Rex Flowers said he thinks the reason a lot of people are upset by the images of dead coyotes is because we grow up with teddy bears and dogs and cats.

“We don’t ever hear anything about fishing, we don’t hear anything about the birds, and how is it any different?” Flowers asked. “I mean, think of the cruelty when you have a fishing contest, and a fish hits that line, and you rip the lips right off the face of that fish. Is that not as intense?”

“I know a lot of people today are saying that other states have set a precedent that we need to follow,” Preston Acuff said. “I think this is really an opportunity for Nevada to stand up and set a different precedent, that we’re not just going to be followers, but rather acknowledge that there is no scientific basis to banning these contests, and we’ll allow sportsmen to legally partake in these contests of unprotected species.”

Jim Cooney suggested that Clark County could pass an ordinance prohibiting coyote hunting contests.

“If Clark County would like to have an ordinance that outlaws that, that’s fine, but let’s not push that off on the other 16 counties,” he said.

Coyote history

One thing everyone agrees on is that coyotes are in no danger of being wiped out. In the early 1900s the U.S. worked on getting rid of wolves to help the livestock industry, and by the 1920s most of the wolves were gone. That was good news for the coyotes, but in 1931, Congress passed a bill allocating $10 million to kill off all the coyotes in the country.

“What ensued was the most epic campaign of persecution against any animal in North American history,” Flores said in the National Geographic interview. “In a nine-year period between 1947 and 1956, this agency killed approximately 6.5 million coyotes in the American West.”

But coyotes continued to flourish.

Coyotes have been around for many thousands of years in what is today the central United States and Mexico, but in the 1900s they expanded their territory and are now in every U.S. state except Hawaii, and they are continuing to spread through the Americas. They have proven good at adapting to all kinds of environments. They are omnivores and can eat fruit and vegetables, although their main diet is rodents, rabbits and squirrels when they’re available. The average coyote eats about 1,800 rodents a year.

Today many coyotes live in big cities. Wildlife Commission member Hubbs said the comments she receives on most issues divide into the pro-hunting and hunting skeptic groups, but with coyotes the comments divided out a little differently because there are some city people who may not be enthusiastic about hunting but who like the idea of coyote hunting contests because they are frightened of the coyotes they see in their neighborhoods.

During public discussion, some of those opposed to the coyote hunts said people should not be afraid of coyotes, while some of those supporting coyote calling emphasized that coyotes do occasionally attack people and pets. Coyote attacks do happen, but they are relatively rare. Occasionally there is a problem coyote, like the one in a neighborhood east of San Francisco that bit three adults and two toddlers from July 2020 through February 2021. Authorities killed the coyote March 11 and determined that it did not have rabies.

Wildlife Services, a division of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, kills between 60,000 and 70,000 coyotes in the U.S. each year. The Elko County Commission’s resolution supporting coyote hunting contests says, “The federal government’s APHIS program charged with predator control has an annual budget of over $100 million and studies have estimated that every dollar spent on predator control results in $10 in saved livestock … Coyote hunting contests compliment this effort and reduce the need for federal taxpayer funding.”

APHIS Wildlife Services says coyotes kill about 144,000 cattle and calves, 118,000 sheep and lambs, and 53,000 goat and kids annually.

A rancher’s perspective

Elko County Wilde Brough talked about some of his experiences with coyotes.

“I’m in the cattle business, and we are in the process now of calving out a group of heifers,” Brough said. “It was three nights ago that my son went down at midnight and was checking the heifers. And there was a coyote eating on a newborn calf as it was being born. He shot … but the coyote ran off.

“The coyote, and I don’t know if people believe this or not, but it actually has messed up the brain of that cow. That cow was crazy after that experience.”

“We tubed the calf three or four times, and he died yesterday morning.”

“That calf and that cow were probably worth $1800 to $2000 to me,” Brough said “That cow is now maybe worth $500, and of course the calf is dead. So I’m out $1200 to $1500 bucks on that deal.”

“I’ve seen coyotes, as an outfitter, actively after deer, actually chasing deer. I’ve seen 10 coyotes together in row, going down some country. I’ve seen coyotes herd some deer up into some snow, and that’s what they were doing was trying to keep those deer in that snow. Because they could run on top and the deer were sinking through.”

“Elko County was nationally, internationally known for its deer herd. And not anymore. The deer are just not there. And that’s because of the coyote.”

Brough is concerned that the movement to restrict the killing of coyotes could continue to grow.

“The folks that … want us to quit killing coyotes … They don’t know anything about these coyotes and what they are in Elko County and what they do. They have no idea. I’ve never seen them come forward and say, we’ll pay for your calf that the coyotes eat, or we’ll help mitigate any damages by these predators.”

“Those people that are putting that out, they don’t know the damage they do to us,” Brough said. “They don’t know how important it is to us. And so they will continue. And they’ve been at it, and we’ve held them off I think for quite a while, but they have continued this for as long as I’ve been around. And one of these days they’re going go figure out a way. And I seriously hope that I’m not alive when that day comes.”

Four of the state wildlife commissioners wanted to allow the coyote hunting contests to continue, but five wanted to revisit the issue after they have had more time to think about it and gather more input and data.

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