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Coyote Killing Contest in Montana: Barbaric or Helpful?

The town of Baker, Montana, has been making more headlines each year with its annual Fallon County Coyote Calling Contest, where hunters compete to see who can kill the most coyotes.
OpinionFront Staff
By Carol Johnson

Organizers of the Fallon County Coyote Calling contest in Baker, Montana, view its increasing popularity as an economic boost for the community. But opponents say that it trivializes the sport of hunting by turning it into a contest with a cash prize.

The annual event began five years ago as a way for the Baker Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture to generate interest from outside developers. The first winning purse of $6,000 was funded by entrance fees, local business owners, and the Chamber. Each year has seen an increase in participants, but also an increasing level of outrage and criticism of the event from commentators, animal rights groups, and even some hunters, who say that the contest makes hunting a spectacle instead of a sport.

According to Stephen Price, president of Coyoteclub, most states have few, if any, restrictions on killing coyotes. Price's organization helps connect hunters with ranchers who want to eliminate the varmints from their land. Price says there is a booming interest in hunting coyotes, with about 500 'calling contests' across the country, and that number rises each year. The contests carry that name because the coyotes are attracted by the sounds hunters make by howling and making distress calls to mimic prey. During a 'calling' contest, participants compete to see who can kill the most animals in a specified period of time. Baker's contest also offers a jackpot payout for the largest coyote killed, and the smallest.

Coyotes have long held a low place on the totem pole in the American West, so there is a long-standing division of opinions about how ethical it is to kill them on sight even if they are officially labeled as 'varmints'. State and federal officials have argued for years over whether or not the gray wolf should be removed from the endangered species list, but the coyote is far from reaching endangered status. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's predator control program, its Wildlife Services division shoots, traps, poisons, or otherwise kills about 80,000 coyotes each year on private and public lands.

Many supporters of the event claim that its greatest benefit is in reducing the numbers of coyotes that kill livestock each year. According to the USDA, coyotes caused an estimated $47 million in damage to the cattle industry in 2005, and sheep losses exceeded $10 million in 2004. "I don't know why God put them on this Earth," said Jerrid Geving, a hunter who helps organize the contest in Baker. "If He put them on this world to give us sport for hunting, maybe. But I'll tell you what; they do a lot of damage to livestock."

However, despite many people who agree with that sentiment, not everyone believes that a coyote hunting contest can solve the problem of livestock killings. John Shivik, a biologist with the National Wildlife Research Center, says that any attempt to reduce livestock damage must be targeted toward the specific animals that are doing the damage. Randy Tunby, a sheep rancher, has refused requests by contest participants to hunt on his land. He says that the results of such hunts rarely take care of his problems with coyotes. "I'm not saying it's not a good thing to do; we ourselves call coyotes. But if you have problems with coyotes getting into your livestock, it's going to be haphazard if people coming into the contest get those."

Groups such as the Humane Society of the United States say that neither killings by public agencies nor private hunting contests really solve the problem of livestock killings, because coyotes reproduce so rapidly. Some opponents of the contests claim that they are purely barbaric, because a hunter can kill some coyotes and then six months later, it's as if they didn't kill any at all. To some hunters, turning the challenge of hunting a coyote into a contest defies the basic tenet of hunting being a 'fair chase'―a private struggle between predator and prey.

Whether or not the calling contests are ethical, beneficial, right, or wrong, one thing they aren't is illegal. Most states have few, if any, restrictions on killing coyotes. In Montana, for example, they can be hunted 24 hours a day, 12 months a year, with no limit to the number killed. And the number of coyote killing contests, private and public, keeps increasing each year. So although the coyote is far from being an endangered species right now, evidently people across the country are doing what they can to help it attain that status.

"I don't think hunting is a contest between human beings," said Jim Posewitz, one of the nation's best known hunting advocates, a biologist who spent 32 years with the Montana wildlife agency before founding the Orion Hunters Institute. "We like to think it's a more meaningful relationship that we have with wildlife than simply viewing them as a competition between people."