Coyote Killings: A Complex Debate of Conservation and Cruelty

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coyote pups
Studies show that coyotes facing heavy hunting pressures respond by reproducing more--with alpha and older coyotes gone,
younger animals reproduce, and have bigger litters. (Photo: John Harrison)

Every once in a while you get a sobering reminder about what passes for civilized society. One day several years ago, my husband and I were staying at a vacation rental on the northern Sonoma Coast and decided to head inland to the Anderson Valley, driving east through picturesque oak-studded meadows and mixed conifer forests. With my husband at the wheel, I was free to scour the sky and grasslands for signs of wildlife. I spotted a red-tailed hawk soaring in the distance, a sight that always lifts my spirits. But as we rounded a bend in the road, my heart sank as I struggled to absorb the sight before me: coyotes, as far as the eye could see, strung up on fence posts like scarecrows, bodies contorted, frozen in a gruesome death pose, fur sticking out like straw.

You might think the barbaric practice of hanging coyotes from fences disappeared with the bounty era, when the state paid hunters to exterminate all things carnivore, big or small, on wings or paws, to protect livestock. When the canine crucifixions, like the bounty, reinforced the notion that the only good predator was a dead one.

But, as I saw firsthand, the tradition is alive and well in ranching country. Some people say the carnage serves as a warning to other coyotes to avoid the area or suffer the same fate. Others say it assures nearby ranchers you’re doing your part to kill predators and safeguard livestock.

coyotes hung on fences
Wildlife photographer Steve Creek took this photo of dead coyotes tied to a fence last year in Oklahoma. They were "on display near a major 4-lane highway," Creek says on his web site ( Photo: Steve Creek

There’s no evidence to suggest that a dead coyote scares off the living. But there seems to be something to the idea of killing predators to impress your neighbors if this week’s three-day coyote killing contest is any indication.

Starting Friday, hunters in the tiny town of Adin in Modoc County will pay $50 for the pleasure of killing as many coyotes as they can in the Pit River Rod and Gun Club’s Seventh Annual Coyote Drive. They’ll roam rifle in hand through four counties in the far northeastern corner of California to, as the sponsors promise, "reduce the number of coyotes threatening wild game, livestock and pets in that region.”


A few years ago, the gun club and Adin Supply Outfitters urged hunters to hurry and get their applications in “if you want to win prizes and help rid Northern California of coyotes.” This year, they’re encouraging junior hunters to participate because the “drive is a great time to teach quality ethics and outdoorsmanship to young hunters.”

Entrants get a T-shirt (red paint on the logo drips like blood from the letters) and a chance to win a gun and other prizes.

Conservation groups launched their own drive to stop the slaughter, citing new legislation that requires California’s Fish and Game Commission to use ecosystem-based management and “credible” science to manage the state’s wildlife. What’s more, they say, the hunt could end up killing OR7, the state’s only wolf—which, unlike its cousins in the Rocky Mountains, is still protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. The chances of a hunter mistaking a wolf for a coyote are too high to risk, conservationists argue.

And given the anti-predator rhetoric behind a contest designed to exterminate coyotes, I worry that someone will shoot OR7 knowing full well he’s a wolf.

Adin, population 272, lies within an area called Big Valley, where ranchers raise mostly cattle. Nationwide, predators of all types account for just 5.5 percent of cattle and calf losses, according to data released by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Sheep and lambs are more vulnerable to predators, which NASS says account for 39% of total losses across the country. As the Sacramento Bee reported last year, the federal agency called Wildilfe Services—a more apt name might be Hunter and Rancher Services—killed more than 83,000 coyotes in 2011 for eating big game and livestock. An additional 453 pups were killed in their dens or after they were removed.

But studies, highly credible ones, show that all the killing just gives you more coyotes. Comparing hunted versus unhunted coyote populations, researchers found that in heavily hunted populations adult survival rates drop, more yearlings reproduce and litter sizes increase. This could explain why the agency started tracking how many pups they killed in dens (386 in 2009 and 378 in 2010).

Wildlife experts recommend that livestock producers use guardian dogs like the Komondor, a Hungarian breed that descended from Tibetan dogs. (Photo: Flickr user whartonds)

Wildlife biologists know better. A booklet published by the Utah State University—in a state that just reintroduced a $50 bounty on coyotes—notes that although coyotes are more apt than other predators to feed on sheep, lambs and goats (which aren’t worth the energy for larger carnivores like lions and wolves), the vast majority of their diet consists of rodents and other small animals. A three-year study in West Texas showed that reducing coyote abundance by nearly half led to a decline in the abundance and type of rodent species and a 320% increase in jackrabbit density—leading to increased competition with livestock for available forage.

Brian Pugh, a predator control expert at Oklahoma State Extension Service, argues that lethal methods should be used only as a last resort if the problem is severe. Even then, he warns, it “typically does nothing to eliminate the problem animal or animals [and] can actually cause further problems.” Though any coyote has the potential to kill livestock, studies show many don’t. That’s because it’s a learned behavior. So if a coyote that doesn’t have a taste for sheep is indiscriminately killed, you may have removed your best protection against livestock-eating coyotes because your rodent-loving coyote can no longer defend his territory against other predators.

Pugh and other wildlife managers promote a range of nonlethal methods to protect livestock (so-called “passive” as opposed to lethal methods), from putting goats and sheep in enclosed shelters at night and building coyote-proof fences to removing carrion as soon as possible and using guardian dogs, like the Komondor and Maremma.

But there aren’t just practical reasons that a contest to kill as many coyotes as possible makes no sense. As we’ve killed wolves throughout the country, coyotes have moved in, becoming one of the most widely distributed predators in America. The reason, no doubt, they’re also the most targeted predator in America.

coyote drive 2013 logo
Organizers of the coyote-killing contest will give out T-shirts with the event's logo (above) until supplies last.

But I would like to think that as researchers uncover more and more evidence of the intelligence of animals—particularly of those with complex social behaviors like wolves, coyotes and dogs—that we humans might step back to reflect on how we treat wildlife that shares not just our environment but also, granted to a lesser degree, our cognitive abilities.

You’ve no doubt heard of Chaser, the bordie collie who can recognize 1,000 objects by name? That’s a remarkable cognitive feat that requires learning and working memory—something it was long assumed only humans could manage. Not surprisingly, it turns out that coyotes, our beloved companion’s evolutionary kin, can discriminate between large and small portions of food. This ability to approximate number, which appears in babies at around three months old, helps animals decide where to hunt, flee from predators or fight territorial intruders.

The organizers of the Coyote Drive tout the event as an opportunity to “teach quality ethics
and outdoorsmanship to our youth.” Surely, with all we’ve learned about the rich cognitive life of animals, “quality ethics” demands that we no longer treat wildlife like vermin.


Project Coyote, which promotes carnivore coexistence and educates the public about coyote biology, ecology and behavior, is sponsoring a petition to stop the hunt.