If you live in rural Utah, or just occasionally find yourself curled up in a sleeping bag on some lonely patch of desert, chances are good you've been awakened by the rambunctious, wild yells of a pack of coyotes.
There is no official effort in Utah to gauge the health of the state's coyote population, but wildlife officials, farmers and hunters say that the population is robust, if not abundant.
It is this abundance—and the disappeared sheep and deer fawns that came with it—that led in 2012 to the creation of the state's Predator Control Program. The program pays a $50 bounty for every dead coyote scalp brought to wildlife managers' attention. In 2014, the state paid out $352,050 in bounties and another $140,000 to 14 contracted coyote slayers, who were given $10,000 to $14,000 each to target specific areas where the state's mule-deer populations were deemed at risk.
These efforts led to the killing of 7,041 Utah coyotes in 2014. In addition, contract bounty hunters killed 236 coyotes. And combined with other coyote-killing programs as well as kills by fur trappers, who killed 4,336 coyotes—the number of documented coyotes shot and trapped since 2012 is 25,025.
In the midst of this slaughter, an endangered gray wolf—thought to be a coyote—was shot and killed by a hunter in December 2014 in Beaver County.
While wolves are an utter rarity in Utah, at least one wildlife-advocacy organization has accused the Beehive State of erring for not suspending its bounty-hunting program as soon as it became aware of a possible wolf roaming the area. And with only marginal rises in the deer fawn survival rate since the program was implemented—fawn survival was at 61 per 100 does in 2011 compared to 64 in 2014, according to Leslie McFarlane, the mammals coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources—some question whether all of this killing is worthwhile.
"In Utah, they have a history of disrespect for endangered species, and I think that's what happened here," says Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity in Flagstaff, Ariz. "I think they made an administrative decision to put this wolf at risk, knowing a hunter would make a mistake, or pretend to have made a mistake, so that they wouldn't have to deal with wolves there."
McFarlane says Utah wildlife officials had documentation of a possible wolf in the area one month prior to the killing. But she says neither she nor anyone else at the state level knew for sure that a wolf was in the area. Furthermore, she says, because coyotes are not protected in any way in Utah, they can be killed at any time, without regard to the bounty program.
"We get random wolves that can move through the state, but we don't stop the entire program because a wolf moves through the state," McFarlane says. "The state doesn't have the authority to shut down coyote hunting in the state. It's a nonprotected species that anyone can take at any time."
This is little consolation for Silver, who has filed open-records requests in Utah in search of the parties responsible for declining to suspend the bounty program when the wolf was spotted.
He says that Utah's bounty program, which McFarlane believes is the only one of its kind in the country, must be suspended when wolves are known to be in the area. If not, he fears more endangered wolves could be killed.
The wolf, named "Echo," killed last winter, was collared in Wyoming and, in the lead up to its final moments in Utah, was spotted on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
"There will be wolves in Utah again," Silver says. "Wolves wander. This female proved to us that they will wander. The next time that we notice that there's a wolf in Utah, the coyote-bounty hunting program better be shut down in the area, or we're going to demand the state of Utah doesn't deserve federal funds because they're knowingly violating federal wildlife laws."
Silver added that the wolf's presence in the Grand Canyon State was something he and his fellow Arizonans were excited and proud of.
"It's a big deal for us that we've got our first wolf to the Grand Canyon in a century," Silver says. "We like that down here, and the state of Utah took that away from us ..."
Wolves, coyotes and mule deer aside, the bounty-hunting program was born in Utah to protect another key group: ranchers.
The bill that installed the bounty program, sponsored by Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, was not only intended to ensure a thriving mule-deer population, but, according to Okerlund, also to protect sheep herds. According to the Utah Wool Growers Association, sheep ranchers lose 27,000 animals each year to predators.
Like McFarlane, Okerlund says it is difficult to tell whether or not the bounty hunting program has been effective. The small rise in the survival rate of fawns could be as much due to recent mild winters as to fewer coyotes.
But in general, Okerlund says, he's hearing from sheep growers across the 10 rural counties he representas that there are fewer coyotes.
"I don't have any hatred for predators," Okerlund says, noting that when he was a boy, it seemed like a lot more hunters came from out of state than do today to hunt the large herds of mule deer, which he believes have suffered in the jaws of coyotes. "I think [coyotes are] part of the ecosystem. We just got to the point where there are too many of them and too few livestock and wildlife that are being affected by them."
Matt Mickel raises sheep in Sanpete Valley. Like the state of Utah, he doesn't have any hard numbers to show that there are fewer coyotes, and he can't say for certain whether or not he's lost fewer sheep since the advent of the bounty program. But one key factor—the rising number of people attempting to kill coyotes and the animal's more-wary behavior—tells him the coyote's numbers must be dropping.
This has led to at least one unintended consequence: In the past, when Mickel had problems with coyotes killing his sheep, he hired a government trapper to take care of it. But over the past two years, Mickel says, his hired trappers have had a more difficult time catching the culprit—a fact he traces to the wisdom of coyotes and the herds of people trying to kill them.
Once a coyote is summoned by a hunter or trapper, Mickel says if that coyote isn't killed, it learns quickly to not fall for the trick again. "They hear you, they see you, they smell you, you shoot and miss," he says, "It's almost impossible to call a coyote again."
To ensure that hunters don't double-dip and get paid twice with the same coyote hide, the ears on the pelts are notched. Then another measure is taken: a tooth is pulled. This tooth analyses, state data shows, indicates that 50 percent of the coyotes killed in the bounty program in 2014 were less than a year old. Another roughly 35 percent were no older than two.
"Old, smart coyotes get more educated, because there are so many people out trying," Mickel says. "When we have problems, we have some coyotes come in that are killing on us. I feel like we are having a harder time getting it controlled than we used to."
To combat predator kills, Mickel says, he allows his sheep to give birth in an enclosed area, guarded by dogs. The lambs don't leave until they're a month old, to give them a better shot at surviving.
Mickel says he's never been asked if he worried about the health of the coyote population—which, apart from its hunger for his livestock, he says he enjoys. A few decades ago, he says, hunters and ranchers used poison to kill coyotes. Hunting alone, he says, won't kill them off.
"It's been sought after, hunted, tried to exterminate for 150 years, and they're still thriving and growing strong," he says. "I feel like they'll be probably the last animal alive on earth."
But where Mickel sees little danger in the widespread hunting of coyotes, Silver sees a lack of regard for wildlife from the state of Utah.
That Utah doesn't keep tabs on its coyote population while simultaneously spending half a million dollars a year working toward culling its numbers, Silver says, is "despicable."
And Silver says the Mule Deer Protection Act, which was passed in 2012 in tandem with the creation of the Predator Control Program, is little more than a livestock protection act, which is one more way farmers and ranchers are being subsidized by the government and abusing public lands.
"Most cattlemen don't like to have predators on public lands, because they have to watch the calves. Right now, they use our public land as feed lots," he says. "It's another way that you prove in Utah that your farmers and ranchers are welfare queens, but you won't admit it. That's why you have a bounty program in Utah."
McFarlane says although Utah's bounty program is unique, it isn't the only state that allows coyote hunting where wolves are present and could be mistakenly killed. The responsibility, she says, ultimately rests on the shoulders of the person wielding the gun. In Echo's case, no charges were filed against the two hunters involved.
"Our agency cares very much about endangered species. None of us would have these jobs or work in these positions if we didn't care about wildlife or endangered species," McFarlane says. "Quite honestly, the onus falls on the person that has the gun and is out hunting to know what they're shooting at and to know what they're taking."