One morning in the 1930s in Yellowstone National Park, biologist Adolph Murie watched a trotting coyote joyously toss a sprig of sagebrush in the air with her mouth, adroitly catch it, and repeat the act every few yards. Murie was conducting a study to prove that coyotes were "the archpredator of our time." But the biologist, whose work ultimately exonerated the animals, was more impressed by that sprig-tossing — proof of the joy a coyote took in being alive.
If we paid attention, we might share Adolph Murie’s fascination with this intelligent, playful creature. Instead, we kill roughly half a million of them annually in the United States.
No other animal in American history has suffered the kind of deliberate, casual persecution we have rained down on coyotes. For a long stretch of the 20th century the federal government even sought their outright extermination.
Amid that coyote war, biologists Fred Knowlton and Guy Connolly published a study explaining how coyotes could withstand such scorched-earth warfare. When left alone, coyote populations stabilize, whereas under persecution, colonizing mechanisms kick in. If alpha females die, beta females breed. They have greater pup survival. Pressured, packs break up and individuals colonize new areas. Coyotes can withstand as much as a 70 percent yearly kill rate without suffering any decline in their total population. The only real effect a half-century of coyote killing was producing was coyote Manifest Destiny, as they spread out across North America.
Last year, Oregon Small Farm News highlighted research demonstrating that coyote packs not disrupted by lethal control can actually prevent livestock losses—and that coyotes predate on livestock more when they are killed in higher numbers.
Yet Oregon still allows wildlife killing contests, where "hunters" slaughter as many coyotes as possible to win cash, a belt buckle, or a gun.
More than seventy prominent conservation scientists have signed a statement condemning killing contests as ecologically indefensible, but contest organizers still promote them as a recreational pursuit and a way to attract young people to hunting. Their victims are not only coyotes, but the very image of rural America, tarnished by widespread photos of beefy, middle-aged men in camouflage, guns in hand and dead animals no one is ever going to eat piled in trucks.
Coyotes don’t need our help to survive as a species. But there is something perverse in society marking an ancient American species for death, setting it outside the bounds of even our wildlife protections and anti-cruelty laws.
No thoughtful human being should sacrifice for pleasure or a bet an animal like the one Adolph Murie observed in Yellowstone. Doing so is immoral — not in a religious sense, but in reference to morality’s origins, the evolution of a sense of fairness among members of a social species, which early on came to include a human recognition that other creatures enjoy being alive and that depriving them of life is a very serious matter.
On March 20, the Oregon Senate Committee on Judiciary will vote on a bill to outlaw coyote killing contests statewide (SB 723-2). The bill is not a ban on hunting — individuals will still be allowed to hunt coyotes — and does not prohibit fishing tournaments or affect laws related to the taking of predatory animals.
The National Coalition to End Wildlife Killing Contests is working in other states to do abolish wildlife killing contests. On March 12, the New Mexico State Legislature passed legislation to ban coyote killing contests. California prohibited the awarding of prizes for killing furbearers and nongame mammals in 2014, and Vermont banned coyote killing contests last year. Cities and counties in Arizona, New Mexico and Wisconsin passed resolutions condemning wildlife killing contests in 2018 and 2019.
Killing for mere pleasure an animal that for five million years has played an important role in America is shortsighted and ethically indefensible. As long as urbanites keep their pets inside at night and ranchers use common-sense husbandry and proven nonlethal measures, coyotes pose no unique or overwhelming danger. The truth is, we ought to appreciate them rather than target them in bloodsport.
Dan Flores is the author of numerous books including the NYT best-seller "Coyote America" and serves as an Ambassador to Project Coyote. He resides in Santa Fe.
Camilla H. Fox is the founder and executive director of Project Coyote and co-author of "Coyotes In Our Midst."