t is a quiet, chilly November morning in Southern Utah as Ben Dalton and his hunting partner, dressed in white coveralls, conceal themselves among some bushes, rifles at their sides. With a quick toot on a wooden mouthpiece, the sound of a dying rabbit resounds through the mountainous terrain. The two men lie low and wait. They do not have to wait long.
With purposeful strides, two wild-eyed coyotes race towards the call, hoping to make good on the promise of food. Wasting no time, Dalton takes a steady aim at one of the coyotes and pulls the trigger. His partner does the same and they watch as the first coyote, the one they both coincidentally aimed at, falls. It stops the second coyote in its tracks and in a blink, it is gone.
Dalton removes a pocketknife from his vest, and cuts off the lifeless coyote’s ears and puts them away for safekeeping. Dalton can get $20 for those ears.
The state of Utah is paying hunters to kill Copper the Coyote, one of three 2002 Winter Olympic mascots. Copper should be basking in the glow of Olympic status. Instead, he is running for his life due to legislation passed by Utah lawmakers in 2000.
Largely because coyotes are seen as intrusive to hunting, some prominent Utah sportsmen lobbied the Legislature for a bounty program, offering to pay higher licensing fees to fund it. The Legislature, through a series of financial appropriations, gave the sportsmen their wish. They set aside $100,000 for the purpose of controlling the loss of livestock and other wildlife species by coyotes.
Each of the 29 counties in Utah can participate, and nine of them—Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Juab, Millard, Sanpete, Wastach, Washington and Daggett—have signed up to help eliminate coyote loss in their areas. Copper Coyote has been served notice: Olympic mascot yes; free roaming sheep-killer; no way.
Coyotes are common in Utah, occurring in open deserts, grasslands, forests and other habitats. In groups, coyotes are known to occasionally kill pets, livestock and young game animals, such as fawns. However, they mainly subsist on rodents, carrion and plants. According to Utah Wildlife Services data, females produce one litter of four to seven pups during the spring. The pups leave home in the fall and nine out of 10 times, this is the segment of the coyote population that is targeted and killed. Full-grown pups are also the most likely to kill sheep and young game.
Dalton knows a little something of the guileful coyote. The husband and father is the assistant principal at Beaver High School in Beaver. He also goes by the name of “Coyote Killer” and a website features pictures of him displaying a couple of very dead coyotes. In one picture, his 4-year-old daughter stands with a foot on the underbelly of a dead coyote, smiling wildly. The killing of coyotes is nothing Dalton is ashamed of. Having grown up on a farm, he learned at a young age that coyotes were more than harmless pests.
“I’ve seen coyote relay antelope around a hill to trap them and then kill them. I’ve seen coyotes eat a baby calf [as it is being] born. I’ve come across coyote kills in the mountains with spots of blood 20 feet out. There’s no bones, no carcass. Just hair,” Dalton says.
And his early experience helped shape his adulthood pastime. “I’ve dedicated every weekend of my life to hunting, watching this animal, tricking and surprising it.”
As a hunter and bounty participant, Dalton also supports another more controversial aspect of coyote treatment in Utah: coyote contests. Coyote contests take bounties a step further and they are not exclusive to Utah. The object of the contest is simple: Whoever kills the most coyotes in a weekend, wins.
According to Dalton, who has taken part four years in a row, coyote hunting contests are held once a year at an undisclosed location in Utah and last only one weekend. Participants hunt all day Saturday and celebrate on Sunday. There are prizes for most killed and largest and smallest killed and participation is limited. Men and women from around the nation send in applications. Even when admitted, their participation is tenuous.
“You can’t just run [the contest] in the local paper, you have to call people. It’s almost a secretive thing. We have to meet outside the city limits and it almost feels like sneaking around. The hunters usually know someone who is already in. We check references to make sure it’s not someone coming in to break it up,” says Dalton.
In fact, even for those lucky hunters who have been cleared to participate in the contest, their behavior is strictly watched. There are strict rules. Breaking them results in disqualification for life. Essentially, no hunter participating in a weekend coyote contest can break a law. That means not even a speeding ticket.
Dalton insists that coyote contests are not as barbaric as they seem. “It is not like we kill huge piles of coyotes or that we are just killing them to get great prizes. I’ve never seen more than 20 killed and the party in which the prize is given—we use it for fund-raisers. There are entry fees and a purse and we target someone who maybe needs a liver transplant and give them 10 percent of the prize money,” Dalton says. “People are going to protest and I say to them, ‘I don’t bother you. Don’t bother me.’”
For people like Craig Axford, the idea of coyote contests and bounties is morally repugnant. Axford, who is running for Congress in the 1st District on the Green Party ticket, has been involved in protecting Utah’s wildlife since he created the Utah Cougar Coalition five years ago to help protect mountain lions.
Now that Copper is being targeted, Axford hears the call of the coyote and is leading the cause to save them. The former director of the Utah Environmental Congress (which he helped create) sites all sorts of problems with sanctioned coyote killings, and he is not alone.
Axford and others point to the fact that predator control measures have not resulted in fewer coyotes. In fact, their populations are increasing. “Female coyotes compensate by having larger litters in the spring to make up for the losses. Bounties don’t work because they don’t target known offenders,” Axford says.
Axford maintains that bounties and federal Wildlife Services measures are a waste of taxpayer money. Simple, cost-effective measures could replace the expensive, ineffective killings, he says. “Fiscally, biologically and ethically, bounties and contests make no sense. Ranchers are not taking simple steps such as buying a llama or a dog to protect their herd because the bounty takes away incentive to do it. The money the state is putting into these programs is counterproductive. If you want fewer coyote, reintroduce the wolf,” Axford says.
According to a Yellowstone Ecosystems Study, since wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park in 1995, coyote populations in some areas have been cut in half because wolves are killing them. According to Axford and others, the wolf is much less likely to attack livestock. They are more solitary creatures who do not often wander away from home. They are much more effective in controlling coyote populations.
For Axford, he sees irony in the state and federal predator control measures, even though the same organizations that sponsor such control recognize that random killings are undesirable.
An annual management plan put forth by state and federal agencies in 2001 states that “damage by carnivores, including coyotes, bobcats, foxes, mountain lions and black bear and raccoons is usually caused by local populations or individual animals rather than the total population of a species.” It is just this point that people like Axford point to as the main problem. With bounties and contests, the offending coyotes are not targeted, but the population as a whole is killed at random.
“There are people who enjoy killing things. They don’t eat what they kill. They do it just to see how many they can kill in a weekend and that is reprehensible. That is sending the wrong message to our children, to go out and kill just for fun,” Axford says.
Axford says the need for predator control is simply not there. He reports that only 2 to 3 percent of cattle loss nationwide has recently been attributed to predators. To him, the bounties and contests serve the hunters the singular purpose of killing for sport.
But while some states do not experience large cattle losses at the jaws of the coyote, other states do. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1998, Wyoming reported a staggering loss of 46,000 sheep due to coyotes, costing ranchers millions of dollars. On average, however, about 30,000 sheep deaths in Wyoming are attributed to coyotes. In 1999, the U.S.D.A. estimated that 126,000 sheep nationwide had been killed by coyotes. With losses like that, certainly, state officials must address the situation.
Mike Bodenchuk, director of Utah Wildlife Services, has been addressing the controversy for years and sees both sides of the argument.
Practically speaking, coyotes are killed by motorists 10 times more than they are by hunters, and coyotes self-regulate their own populations. According to Bodenchuk, 60 percent of coyote populations die from lack of food and space. Killing them, ironically, only offsets this process because, as Axford also points out, females simply have larger litters.
“Coyote contests are distasteful to a lot of people, more so than a fishing contest, but it is the same competitive nature that drives people and that is never going to change. Biologically, the contests are not bad but they are not going to control [coyote] populations. Socially, there are problems and I understand why some people are opposed to the practice and I respect their opinions,” Bodenchuk says.
Bodenchuk says that while coyote bounties are not an effective population control, they do help hunters who reap the benefits of more plentiful wildlife populations. He also says that sportsmen in Utah are in essence paying for the bounty program. And when the hunters come, they bring money with them to counties in need of revenue from visitors. The bottom line for Bodenchuk is that bounties and contests do not hurt anyone or cause any damage.
In some ways, incentives to kill coyotes help transient pups because they are the ones roaming around, often in harm’s way.
“If some coyotes are killed, it makes room for others by opening up a territory and now the transients have a place to live. The same juvenile pups are more susceptible to being killed,” Bodenchuk says.
Even though coyotes are responsible for wildlife loss, public opinion on predator control has changed. Twenty years ago, according to Logan biologist Robert Schmidt, people would have supported the killing of predators. Now when asked if reducing predator numbers is the best way to solve a predator problem, more people disagreed than agreed. In 1998, Schmidt published a study on the public attitudes of predators. Nearly 80 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “I enjoy knowing that bears and wolves live in North America.”
What the public makes of killing coyote does not affect Dalton’s hunting practices at all. “It does not bother me that I kill these animals. I’ve been hunting coyote before the bounty, for recreation and sport. We’d hunt them whether there was one or not. Now everyone wants to hunt for bounty, but there was better hunting before the bounty,” Dalton says.
Dalton also hopes that eventually, people from both sides of the issue will begin to understand each other. He hopes to educate people on coyotes and why he hunts them.
“On a hunt in an area in Nevada, we took a lot of coyotes. On one day we got 20. Of those 20, I saw mange disease in four that we killed. If they had been properly managed, there would still be coyote there. I took a few coyotes, but the disease killed many more,” Dalton says.
Dalton’s compulsion to kill coyotes does not stem from a deep-seated disdain for the animal. Instead, what drives Dalton is the respect he has for the Canis latrans. “Coyotes are the most intelligent, sophisticated animal that there is. It far exceeds any animal that I have pursued and I have the utmost respect for coyotes. I think that when the world is over, there will be coyotes left. They are survivors. They will be one of the last ones left,” Dalton says.