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
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
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
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,”
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
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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