Last weekend, 50 hunters gathered in New York’s Mohawk Valley to take aim at the local coyotes. A hunting club offered prizes for the largest male and female carcasses, paying out $400 to the winning contestants.
The event was among the last sanctioned animal hunting contests in the state, following lawmakers’ passage of a ban on such events that will take effect later this year.
“There’s growing awareness of these contests and the damage they’re causing ecologically,” said Renee Seacor, carnivore conservation director with Project Coyote, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting carnivore species. “Public attitudes on wildlife management are shifting.”
New York became the 10th state to ban or limit wildlife hunting contests with the December enactment of the new law. Oregon’s wildlife agency also imposed a ban last year on such events on state lands. So far, the bans have largely been passed in Democratic-led states. In some states, including Nevada, wildlife commissions — which are often stacked with hunting proponents — have rejected petitions to ban the practice.
So far this year, Illinois and New Jersey are following New York’s lead by seeking to ban contests through legislation rather than state agency rules. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that such contests kill more than 60,000 animals every year.
In addition to coyotes, hunting contests have targeted bobcats, foxes, crows, squirrels and many other animals that lack the strict regulations applied to traditional game animals such as deer and elk.
Advocates of the bans say the contests are pointless killing sprees fueled by bloodlust and cash, based on outdated perceptions that some species — primarily coyotes — are “nuisance” animals.
But some hunters fear the bans are part of a broader effort to crack down on hunting opportunities. Steven Rinella, a hunting advocate renowned for his “MeatEater” TV show and podcast, noted that contests must fall within existing rules set by wildlife managers.
“Any of the individuals who are participating in these contests could at any time be out doing the exact same practice,” he said in an interview. “To target the competitive derby component in this is basically just saying, ‘I disapprove of hunting, and this is a thing I can go after and win.’”
Brian Gray, president of the Mohawk Valley Coon and Cat Club, said contests such as the one his hunting club held last weekend help sustain the organization’s membership.
He intends to continue holding contests once the ban takes effect, organizing by word of mouth to avoid state enforcement “unless someone tattles.” If challenged, Gray said, he intends to relabel the event a “photography contest,” with prizes for the best photos of dead coyotes instead of for the carcasses themselves.
“Some of our guys have $6,000 scopes on their rifles, and they’re never going to get to use them for anything else,” he said. “This club has been in my family since the ’40s, and I don’t want to lose it.”
Coyotes under fire
For much of America’s history, predator animals such as coyotes and wolves were viewed as troublesome varmints and subjected to state-sponsored extermination campaigns. While this practice cleared vast landscapes of wolves, grizzly bears and other animals, coyotes only became more abundant.
Coyotes respond to hunting pressure by dispersing and birthing larger litters, as author and historian Dan Flores describes in his book “Coyote America.” While coyotes once lived only in the arid West, the efforts to eradicate them have driven them to every corner of the North American continent. They’ve filled the ecological niches left vacant in places where wolves and cougars were killed off, and they’ve learned how to thrive in cities, with abundant prey of rats and mice.
“The American public has long regarded this animal as something like a cockroach with fur,” Flores said in an interview. “But our attempts to wipe them out triggered an evolutionary response from them to scatter and spread.”
Wildlife experts say efforts to protect livestock and pets by shooting coyotes only causes more breeding from surviving animals — which results in coyotes that are less schooled about avoiding conflict with humans.
“There’s the suggestion that these animals are really bad for us, but you can’t shoot your way out of that,” said Barbara Baker, chair of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, which outlawed hunting contests in 2020.
Hunting advocates counter that the species’ resilience proves coyotes can be hunted sustainably.
Gray, president of the hunting club in New York, blamed coyotes for killing livestock and pets in Mohawk Valley, but said there has been no decline in those attacks following hunting contests that killed scores of coyotes. He asserted residents should be allowed to fight back.
In many states, even those that have banned contests, hunters can shoot as many coyotes as they please with few restrictions on seasons or weaponry.
A growing movement
California became the first state to ban hunting contests in 2014, following a vote from state regulators.
“Most ethical hunters object to these contests,” said Mike Sutton, who was serving as president of the California Fish and Game Commission at the time. “They’re inconsistent with our current understanding of predator ecology, and they give hunters a bad name.”
Tony Wasley serves as president of the Wildlife Management Institute, a conservation group with roots in the hunting community, and holds leadership roles in several hunting-related organizations. He supported an effort to ban hunting contests when he served as director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife in 2021.
In testimony before the Nevada Wildlife Commission, he noted that the agency’s role is to recruit more hunters, who supply much of the agency’s budget through license fees. That task, he said, is made difficult when images of mass slaughter circulated on social media tarnish their public image.
“I fear what indiscriminate killing says about hunters or the ethics of hunting more broadly,” he said in an interview. “To verminize every coyote and say that [killing it] is some benefit to another species would be difficult to substantiate.”
Despite Wasley’s support, the proposal to ban hunting contests was rejected by the agency’s commission, which by law is made up predominantly of hunters and anglers.
Tommy Caviglia, who was the commission’s vice chair at the time, argued that few members of the public are even aware of the contests, the Nevada Current reported, saying the proposal was driven by the “anti-hunting side of the world.”
While some individual hunters have spoken in favor of the contest bans, organized sporting groups have largely remained silent or opposed them as a “slippery slope” to further hunting limitations.
“Hunting is already highly regulated, and people don’t understand the amount of nuance that there is,” said Torin Miller, senior director of policy with the National Deer Association, a nonprofit that advocates for wildlife habitat and hunting. “All of these contests have to occur within the bounds of seasons and bag limits that agencies have put in place.”
Miller said that contest bans should be decided by wildlife agencies, not legislators.
In December, New York became the fourth state to enact a ban through legislation, following Maryland, New Mexico and Vermont. The bill passed 88-53 in the New York Assembly, and 46-15 in the Senate.
“This does not serve a wildlife management purpose,” said Assemblymember Deborah Glick, the Democrat who sponsored the bill. “There were hunters who felt it gave them a black mark and distorted what people thought of hunters.”
Some lawmakers who opposed the bill said the ban illustrates a growing urban vs. rural divide.
“It fails to understand and simply ignores the impact on the heritage and traditions of many rural upstate communities, farmers, and local environments and economies,” said Republican state Sen. Tom O’Mara, according to The Press & Sun-Bulletin.
The New York bill followed an agency decision in Oregon to ban contests on state lands.
Under Oregon law, wildlife managers’ authority in the state does not extend to “predatory animals” on private lands, said Michelle Dennehy, communications coordinator with the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, but the agency responded to public concern about the contests on public lands.
While many of the bans enacted so far have been issued by state wildlife agencies, advocates are increasingly turning to lawmakers to act — especially in states where wildlife commissions are dominated by hunters.
“We have an outdated state agency that’s comprised only of hunters, so we have to go the legislative route,” said Brian Hackett, director of government and community relations at the Associated Humane Societies in New Jersey, a nonprofit that rescues wild and domestic animals.
New Jersey lawmakers advanced a contest ban measure through a Senate committee last year, but the session ended before it could progress further. A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a similar measure earlier this month.
In Illinois, lawmakers also are considering a bill to ban hunting contests. Democratic state Rep. Anna Moeller, the bill’s sponsor, said that wildlife officials deferred the matter to the General Assembly in response to pressure from some hunting groups. While the bill has yet to see any movement, Moeller said backers are working to educate lawmakers who are still unaware that such contests even exist.
“We support hunting that’s done in a sustainable and responsible way,” Moeller said. “When you’re wiping out large numbers of animals at a time, you’re creating an imbalance, and oftentimes we find there’s harmful consequences from being so reckless.”
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