Wile E. Coyote screeched, slammed, and slalomed his way into American folklore through his guileless attempts at snatching a roadrunner as they raced across stunning western landscapes—where the U.S. government owns nearly 50% of the land.
More than 60 years after this hapless cartoon coyote first entered our collective consciousness, roadrunners still flee coyotes and coyotes are still the target of another species’ hunting habits. These days, upwards of 400,000 coyotes a year are killed by humans in the United States, with around three-fourths of these deaths taking place during predator killing contests.
According to Jonathan Ratner, a project director for Western Watersheds, while these contests have been going on for decades, they are becoming more of an issue as they gain public awareness. Two upcoming events present another opportunity to point out how the contests serve no public service purpose, and actually might be illegally infiltrating federal lands.
A number of animal-protection and environmental organizations believe the “Wyoming Coyote Classic,” scheduled for Jan. 7, and the "Wyoming Best of the Best,” planned for February 4, should not be permitted to take place because the organizers failed to obtain the necessary permits and insurance for federal land use.
Ratner said that in the eleven western states where the vast majority of these contests take place it's virtually impossible to have them avoid public lands entirely, try as they might.
"One of the ways they've been trying to avoid public oversight is essentially starting the hunt—setting up tents and whatever—off of public lands," said Ratner. "But the reality is that the hunting takes place on public lands."
Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is turning a blind eye to these contests despite the fact that they raise public safety concerns and create recreational user conflicts.
"Getting a large group of participants together trying to win prizes for shooting the most coyotes is starkly different from a couple of people going out to hunt coyotes, but the BLM refuses to acknowledge that difference," she said.
The contests encourage participants to kill as many coyotes as possible in a short period of time, which can easily veer into reckless territory.
Kristin Combs, program director for Wyoming Untrapped, a group dedicated to creating a safe environment for people and wildlife, said that since the hunting contests are commercial and competitive, it's required that organizers apply for and get a Special Recreation Permit (SRP) to operate on BLM land. She said other states, including Idaho, California, New Mexico, and Nevada have already determined that a SRP is required to hold a coyote killing contest on public land.
She said another problem is that coyotes are not considered a game animal in Wyoming and "can be killed in any manner, at any time, by almost any method."
"If hunting is allowed at all, coyotes and all animals should be subject to the same fair chase principles that govern big game species such as deer and elk," said said.
Combs said that most people who participate in these contests believe that they are helping reduce predation on game herds even though "this has been disproved many times."
"The main limiting factors of ungulate populations are habitat quality and forage availability," she said. "This is why many groups are focusing on dispelling the myths surrounding coyotes and educating the public on the benefits of having coyotes around."
Despite their representation in mid-century cartoons, coyotes are actually quite wily, and have managed to expand their range dramatically across North America in recent decades even as urbanization and environmental degradation have made it hard for many predators to prosper. Formerly only found in the western United States, coyotes now blanket the continental U.S. This newfound ubiquity—coyotes can live in the most urban of environments—has meant that human-coyote interactions have increased (including human pet—coyote interactions), causing some communities to become alarmed and even call for coyote population culls.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, killing coyotes (whether by hunting, trapping, or poisoning) doesn’t work and in reality is costly, inhumane, and ineffective.
“It is nearly impossible to completely eradicate coyotes from an area,” states the Humane Society. “Despite bounties and large-scale efforts to kill coyotes over the last 100 years, coyotes have in fact expanded their range throughout the U.S. and Canada tremendously. One study even found that killing 75% of a coyote population every year for 50 years would still not exterminate the population.”
In a recent op-ed in the Huffington Post, Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, writes that even setting aside the ethics of these “brutal contests” in which males, females with pups, and even the pups themselves are typically fair game, the hunts are not effective at population management:
Scientific studies show that the haphazard slaughter of coyotes actually increases coyote populations, and that when packs are splintered, many more coyotes breed, thus increasing the number of pups dramatically. Furthermore, coyotes are a “keystone species,” which means their presence or absence impacts the entire ecosystem they belong to. Killing contests are ethically inconsistent with the proper management of wildlife.
Nonetheless, coyote hunting contests continue to thrive from Wyoming to Texas as many hunters view the practice as a way to extend the hunting season and perhaps even make a few bucks with little or no downside. When the money goes to charity, they can even feel like they are killing for a good cause.
While contest hunting may seem like fun and games to many hunters, the coyotes that aren’t killed are the ones that really suffer. Research has shown that wolves, coyotes, red foxes, and domestic dogs have emotional lives and can experience feelings similar to grief—the feeling you get when you lose a loved one.
Animal rights groups and environmentalists believe it's much more humane to let nature run its course when possible.
"Most predators, including coyotes, control their own population," said Santarsiere. "The introduction of wolves in Wyoming has also helped control coyotes populations where wolves are present, creating competition for food. In general we don’t believe that there is a need to 'control' the population to some arbitrarily set target population goal."