In the world of moving targets, coyotes are enemy number one. On forums, hunters confess that it can take multiple hits to “put a dog in the dirt.” A testimonial on a website that sells game callers says, “I love shot gunning coyotes up close and personal. It’s very intense.”
But awards for the carnage may soon end and local hunting groups aren’t happy about it. The California Fish and Game Commission is considering a ban on offering money or prizes for killing non-game and fur-bearing mammals such as coyotes and bobcats in “predator hunting contests.”
The contests can be informal, known only to participants who keep locations quiet. But it was an annual, organized coyote derby in Modoc County — similar to one in Kern County — that caused outrage this year, and calls to end the events.
“Those two areas are the only ones that have bothered to arrange contest hunts,” says Bob Smith, the president of San Diego County Wildlife Federation, a coalition of 20 hunting groups that oppose the ban (no relation to National Wildlife Federation). Smith says he isn’t aware of any others in the state.
In San Diego, licensed hunters can hunt coyotes “outside city limits,” says a spokesman for the San Diego Fish and Wildlife office. A ban on prizes won’t stop the contests or coyote hunting in general, which has no season or limits on the number of animals.
It will, however, start a process of reform, says Camilla Fox, director of Project Coyote, the national nonprofit that initiated the proposal. The contests “go against conservation science and ecological thinking,” she says.
Robert Williams, president of the San Diego County Varmint Callers hunting group, disagrees. Williams, who attended an August 6 meeting on the topic in San Diego, has written letters to the commission opposing the ban. There are five “predator/varmint organizations” in Southern California, one letter noted. “Besides doing varmint hunting as a sport, we also believe this is a public service,” he wrote.
“We request that the Department of Fish and Wildlife look into how the contest hunts can be a local benefit to the livestock community during birthing times.”
Williams considers hunting “the most cost-effective way to manage animals, especially the coyote.”
Cost-effective, however, does not mean humane or even scientific, argue dozens of letters Project Coyote submitted to Fish and Game. In fact, the state’s Wildlife Resources Committee was already eyeing changes to outdated predator management policies that overlook the vital role predators play in ecosystems. Fish and Wildlife officials noted that there is no evidence “that predatory mammals killed in these contest hunts are significantly reducing either livestock damage or game populations.”
All along, laws have supported the view of coyotes as varmints. When wildlife threaten or damage property or livestock, homeowners and ranchers can take out a “depredation permit” to kill them. According to California Fish and Game code, this permit is required to kill elk, bear, beaver, or gray squirrels; even the destructive nonnative wild pig. But no depredation permit is needed to kill coyotes.
In early meetings, the commission discussed the reasons behind the proposed ban. Killing wildlife for causing property damage isn’t considered sporting or hunting, but pest control. “The law recognized coyotes as pests” and allows killing them “to minimize property damage.”
But that raises important questions, the commission said. “Should sport hunters dedicated to a code of ethics, including not wasting what they take, be used as pest control agents in the case of coyotes?” Sport hunters may be used when property damage is due to “excessively high game populations” — in which cases they “operate under sport ethics and hunting rules."
Yet, according to the commission, “some of the sport hunting contests are being justified as depredation activities. This could be harmful to the sport of hunting in the eyes of the general public.”
The public can still speak or submit written comments on the proposed rule. The next meeting will be held in Shasta County on October 8. The final vote will occur in Van Nuys on December 3.