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Coyote Hunting Contests

January 2013

By E.M. Fay

Coyotes are among the most far-ranging mammals on the North American continent.  They can be found from Alaska to Mexico, and virtually everywhere from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans.  Nearly ubiquitous in the United States, these intelligent, social, wild dogs – canis latrans  – are unfortunately also one of the most maligned of native species.
 
Mainly carnivorous, coyotes are opportunistic eaters, hunting for food both nocturnally and diurnally.  Their preferred diet is small mammals, but they will also eat ground-nesting birds, lizards, amphibians, insects and berries, and will scavenge the remains of animals that other carnivores have killed.  Coyotes are very beneficial to the eco-system wherever they live, and particularly helpful to humans, as they help keep in check populations that cause harm to man’s agricultural pursuits and even personal health, including various insects that could completely consume the crops we grow for ourselves.  And coyotes do no harm to the general environment, as, say, pesticides do.
 
Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates the coyote.  Some ranchers fear for the safety of their livestock, even though scientific data shows that coyote predation on young sheep or cattle is not a significant factor.  And householders in semi-rural, suburban, and even urban areas point to occasional instances of a pet cat or dog supposedly having been gobbled up by a coyote as a danger, even though simply not leaving one’s pets unattended outdoors will eliminate this threat in nearly all cases.
 
Wildlife Watch has long been an advocate for coyotes, recognizing equally their intrinsic value as individual beings and their essential place in a healthy natural environment.  Therefore, we have been deeply disturbed by the indiscriminate killing of coyotes for whatever reason; but it is especially appalling when the motivation is a commercial enterprise that encourages the wanton taking of life just so someone can win a prize.  
 
In November, a gunshop owner in Los Lunas, New Mexico, advertised a coyote-killing contest as a promotion.  Whoever could bring in the most dead coyotes would win either a 12-gauge shotgun or two semi-automatic rifles.  Carole Altendorf, a citizen concerned about the proposed slaughter of innocent coyotes, started an online petition, asking that people write to local officials to stop the contest.  Altendorf noted that the contest sponsor would not reveal where the hunt was to take place on public land throughout New Mexico, which could put people who were lawfully on the land at risk of being shot accidentally.  Over 5000 persons eventually signed the petition, but the contest was not cancelled.                
 
Another voice was raised against the contest, making several cogent points as to why it was a bad idea.  New Mexico’s elected Land Commissioner, Ray Powell, M.S., D.V.M., made a statement (quoted on November 15th in the Albuquerque Journal) explicating the situation:
 
“The non-specific, indiscriminate killing methods, used in this commercial and unrestricted coyote-killing contest are not about hunting or sound land management.  These contests are about personal profit, animal cruelty, and the severe disruption of the delicate balance of this desert ecosystem.  It is time to outlaw this highly destructive activity.”
In addition, Commissioner Powell pointed out that “The participants in this commercial and unregulated exploitation of wildlife do not have a permit or lease to be on State Trust Lands.”
 
When we spoke with Commissioner Powell, he explained some of the New Mexico Land Commission’s responsibilities.  The Land Commission safeguards and manages some 13,000,000 acres of land, all of which is held in trust for 22 beneficiaries.  Virtually all of this land is leased to agricultural and other enterprises.  Monies from the leases go to beneficiaries which include: public schools, universities, and hospitals, including schools for the blind and deaf population. 
 
In order to have access to state trust lands, permission is required.  As trustee, the Land Commissioner works for the public beneficiaries, so if anyone wants to use state land, they have to compensate the trust for that use.  The store owner who sponsored the coyote-killing contest noted above had not applied to use the land for this purpose.  Nor was any application made to the Bureau of Land Management to use the approx. 13,000,000 acres of federal land that the BLM holds in trust.  These facts show that the contest organizer and his contestants were technically “in trespass” when they used state land to kill the coyotes.
 
But there are more significant reasons than the laws of trespass for opposing such contests – issues of morality and biology. 
 
Commissioner Powell is a veterinarian.  His doctorate in veterinary medicine from Tufts University emphasized wildlife medicine.  A native of Albuquerque, he earned his bachelor’s degree in anthropology and biology, and his master’s degree in botany and plant ecology, at the University of New Mexico.  Before being elected Land Commissioner in 2010, he worked with the world-renowned scientist and humanitarian Dr. Jane Goodall at the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research Education and Conservation.  Powell also served as State Land Commissioner from 1993-2002 and was President and Vice President of the Western States Land Commissioners Association from 1996-1998, working closely with federal and state officials and Native American tribal leaders to improve public policy on trust lands. (Information courtesy of www.nmstatelands.org )
 
With this extensive background in the natural sciences and land management, Commissioner Powell is uniquely placed to explain with clarity the importance of preserving native species such as the coyote.
 
Deploring the fact that there has been an increase in the number of coyote hunting contests in recent years, Powell confirmed his earlier statement that they are a clear example of animal cruelty.  He then elaborated on the important ecological issues.
 
“From a biological aspect, killing coyotes creates a problem where there isn’t one.  The biological importance of coyotes to a healthy eco-system is affected negatively by this kind of unregulated, random killing.  Especially as New Mexico has been in a severe drought situation since 1998, many agricultural families are hanging on by their fingernails.
 
Even in a non-drought period, there is a limited amount of grass.  Grass is the ecological engine for agriculture, so it is disastrous if it is eaten up by the larger populations of mice and rabbits, etc., that occur when coyotes are killed off.  And naturally, during the current long-term drought, there is much less grass to begin with, so maintaining balance by letting the coyotes do their “job” in the food chain is even more vital.
 
Most members of both the agricultural and hunting communities do not see [the contest] as a wildlife management issue.  They recognize that it is a commercial enterprise – about winning  prizes for indiscriminate killing.  They are opposed to that abuse of wildlife.  The overwhelming response from both communities to this has been opposition.”
 
Powell described other ways that coyotes are of great benefit to hard-working farmers.  Coyotes live and work in family units.  They are territorial and protect their patch of land from outsiders,  i.e., younger, more aggressive coyotes.  When people co-exist with their local coyotes, the coyotes defend that land from interlopers who are more prone to take vulnerable newborn farm animals.  Conversely, destroying a settled coyote family by random killing hurts not only the coyotes, but also the agricultural community.  Wildlife and humans across the board suffer.  Experienced hunters understand this fact of life, which is why they do not generally support the contests.
 
 “The ranching community has co-existed with native wildlife for hundreds of years; Native Americans have for thousands of years,” Powell concluded.  Just as with humans who are struggling to keep going in difficult times, “Wildlife is barely hanging on, too.  Another problem for our wildlife is introduced species such as feral hogs.  Being attentive to sound land management includes protecting our native species.  It is critically important when the whole system is under the extra stress of a long-term drought.”
 
In spite of these problems, Commissioner Powell is grateful for the understanding and assistance of the people he works with and for.  “We are fortunate in New Mexico that we have a lot of really good people who understand the issues.  The vast majority of them look at this killing contest as an aberration.” 
Speaking out against the contest is just one small facet of the work that Powell and the dedicated staff at the State Land Office are doing to try to keep New Mexico a sustainable, wholesome place to live.  Besides ensuring that 90% of the revenue from leased state land goes to the public schools, the Land Commissioner strictly monitors all use of the land to ensure it is kept healthy.  Healthy land is not only more productive for humans, but provides better habitat for native fauna and flora.
 
The Land Office has an educator who works with teachers around the state, utilizing trust land to teach schoolchildren about the natural world.  In partnership with the Department of Energy, Powell also established a 3000-acre nature preserve in Albuquerque.  La Semilla is the largest nature preserve inside a city in the world, providing a haven for numerous species.  
 
Another program is called Conservation Medicine – One Health.  Its concerns are healthy animals, healthy plants, and healthy people.  It’s about making decisions that are based on natural history and biology, alongside commercial interests, and basing them on generational impacts to the eco-system.  This rationale includes banning commercial coyote hunting contests.  “They are anathema to productivity and the health of our lands for future generations,” Powell said. 
 
Creating as much transparency and accountability as possible is a high priority for Commissioner Powell.  As he told us, “The higher we set the bar, the better it will be for the people who come after us.”          
 
We at Wildlife Watch appreciate Commissioner Powell’s views on the coyote issue, and hope that his courage in speaking out will embolden other public officials to denounce coyote hunting contests and any similar cruel activities, in any state.  Such words and deeds may also inspire legislators to ban these mindless pursuits, so that our wild friends have a better chance to live their lives in peace. 
 
New Mexico has beautiful wild landscapes for Wildlife Watchers to enjoy legally and peaceably.  Despite recent struggles with drought and fires, there is still much that is worthwhile to see and do in the Land of Enchantment.  We encourage our members to visit this unique part of our nation, and Commissioner Powell indicated that “the welcome mat is always out” during his elected term at the New Mexico State Land Office. 

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