Wildlife-killing contests are legal in all US states, except California (2014), Vermont (2018), and parts of New Mexico (2019). These great and gratuitous events most popularly target predators, and “Old Man Coyote” is public enemy number one (only because coyotes are all that’s left to shoot). The rules of the game are simple: the person who kills the most wins a prize! There is no limit to killing “varmints.” A person can shoot as many as they please.

“Well done! Saving livestock one bullet at a time!”

“Shoot a coyote! Save a deer!”

“Smoke a pack (of coyotes) a day!”

These and other jubilant signs pepper the countryside, advertising a number of kill-for-cash carnivals. Bring the kids! Check your local paper, and don’t miss the following events:

The Dog Down Tournament; Save the Birds, Coyote Hunting Tournament; the Predator Challenge; Varmint Hunters’ Blast from the Past; Predator Palooza; (and my personal favorite) Santa’s Slay.

But if you’re fretting about the cost of bullets, don’t worry! In many western states, it’s completely permissible to chase down coyotes or wolves with your snowmobile or ATV and run them over. The impact might not kill the devil right away, but the broken bones ensure the critter won’t walk away! It’s all a part of the sport! YouTube it.

It’s a hell of a time to really muck up some critters!

Seriously, though. Why is this okay?

Theoretically, it shouldn’t be allowed. The North American Wildlife Conservation Model (the anchor for modern wildlife management championed by respectable hunting organizations like the Boone & Crockett Club) emphasizes its disapproval of “frivolous killing.” Nevertheless, a minority of sportsmen determined to continue this cruel tradition, blatantly ignore this ethical cornerstone of hunting.

Wildlife-killing competitions are ethically upsetting by virtue and by natural law. A hunter myself, I believe this wanton practice is not the way of the honest sportsmen. Hunting should never be a competition. Such behavior ultimately degrades the value of Life and undermines any respect for the animals being hunted.

So why do we do it?

Perhaps hatred toward predators is hardwired in our society. It’s a canker; a festering ulcer that we won’t stop picking at, even though the doctors tell us to leave it alone!

“Predators kill livestock and deer,” is the typical argument made to justify these killing-competitions. “If we don’t systematically shoot the varmints, they will start to kill too many cows and sheep.”

Sheep in the snow

To this argument’s credit, predators do inflict damage on livestock. For seven generations, my family has lived in the West, and I can assure you that livestock depredation happens. The likelihood of it happening is minute; however, once in a while, it happens. And if you’re the person it happens to, it becomes personal.

But to mitigate depredation, must we endure wildlife-killing contests?

No. In fact, science repeatedly suggests it’s a terrible idea.

Biological research indicates that using “preventative measures,” such as predator-killing competitions, increases the chances of livestock depredation. Mass killings of carnivores result in the elimination of resident adults, which would otherwise act as a curb to prevent young inexperienced, transient carnivores from causing depredation. Alternatively, targeting individual nuisance animals proves to be more effective when dealing with depredation issues.

Retired biologist and federal trapper for the US Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, Carter Niemeyer, explained, “When you have coyotes eating rodents and rabbits around sheep, that’s desirable. Random shooting…creates chaos, removing the good coyotes. So other coyotes immediately come in to fill the void, and some may be undesirables.”

Likewise, when predator-killing competitions shoot the hell out of a population’s adult coyotes, it alters the pack ratio of adults to young. Coyotes will then generally abandon a diet of small game and will start pursuing larger prospects, like deer and livestock, in order to more conveniently meet the demands of pups. Fewer adult coyotes mean there’s more work for the survivors. It makes sense for them to hunt bigger food, which in turn, pisses us off. To fix it, we shoot up more random coyotes.

The madness is cyclical.

Wolves in Yellowstone during the winter.

Surveys conducted in Utah between the 1950s and the 2000s revealed that the state’s mule deer population had fallen from about 500,000 to about 300,000.

Between 1980 and 2010, the human population in Utah doubled, and now the human footprint overlaps large areas of deer habitat. People are competing with deer for land,w and the deer are frequently losing.

However, to blame something other than “us” for the depleting deer herds, Utah’s Mule Deer Protection Act encourages citizens to kill coyotes (it would have been wolves or grizzlies, but they were already smoked, so we have to kill what we’ve got). Utah coughs out $500,000 per year to pay people who kill coyotes for cash. To pursue this bounty, the World Championship Coyote Calling Contest (a predator-killing competition) has been hosted in Spanish Fork, Utah.

In case our loyal state citizens don’t have the stomach for the job, the Wildlife Services receives an extra $600,000 from the state to gun coyotes from aircraft (this participation from the “professionals” makes it easy to understand why the rest of us blue-collars think wildlife-killing contests are a great and effective method).

After the smoke clears, the cost per coyote killed is approximately $135.95. Not bad for the state that spends the least amount of money in the country on public education.

There is no return investment in the form of more deer, by the way.

Even if coyotes were culpable of deer population reduction, it would require a repeated removal of 70% of all coyotes across the state to make a lasting population impact.

The madness is cyclical! (Did I say that already?)

These contests should have no place in modern wildlife management. The consequences of such practices are minimal on overall coyote populations (these animals have already proven to be tenaciously attached to the land). So, where is the utilitarian sense in throwing away money at these events? Are we killing just to kill? To teach our children that shooting as many things as we can, just because we can, is okay?

Science illustrates there is no lasting positive consequence, and there is no lasting utilitarian benefit, and there certainly is no pragmatic reason to have wildlife-killing contests. So, why are we doing it? Because it’s a tradition? Because it makes us feel good? Because ‘only we know best’ and ‘to hell with anyone who says otherwise’?

Things don’t have to be this way. Thanks to progressive conservation groups like Project Coyote and World Wildlife Fund, more U.S. citizens are becoming aware of what is happening to wildlife in their own backyards. If this post has impacted you at all, I encourage you to find out what sporting events your state allows. As a naturalist, wildlife advocate, and as a hunter, I believe we can do better to show respect for the animals we share this planet with.

By Nat Hab Expedition Leader Aaron Bott

Works Cited:

Decker, Daniel J., Riley, Shawn J., Siemer, William F.  2012 Human Dimensions of Wildlife Management 2nd Edition Press. https://www.npr.org/2018/06/10/618410247/activists-push-to-ban-coyote-hunting-competitions

Shivik J. The Predator Paradox: Ending the War with Wolves, Bears, Cougars, and Coyotes. 2014. Beacon

Williams, Ted. May 22, 2018. Coyote Carnage: The Gruesome Truth about Wildlife Killing Contests https://e360.yale.edu/features/coyote-carnage-the-gruesome-truth-about-wildlife-killing-contests