Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife Commission recently rejected a petition from animal welfare groups calling for a ban on coyote hunting contests. But the commission also directed staff to look for ways to get around current state law which defines coyotes as predator animals — providing vey little protection for them.
On a cold Friday in Burns, we found no obvious sign of what is called the “Coyote Classic.” Nothing in the weekly paper. No storefront signage. No posters, as in previous years. A Facebook site is quiet.
Nobody knows for sure how many coyotes live in Oregon. The Department of Fish and Wildlife won’t give us an estimate, but 300,000 is a commonly quoted figure.
State law defines them as predators. They have virtually no legal protection. The hunting season is year-round — no tags required and no limit.
Organized hunts or derbies have become a flashpoint.
“It’s unethical to kill them just for sport and for blood.” says longtime hunter Adam Bronstein with the Western Watersheds Project.
“Most of us are one month away from calving and we welcome it,” counters Harney County Commissioner Kristen Shelman.
Humane Society of the United States spokesperson Katie Stennes describes them this way
“They’re really more similar to a bloodsport like dogfighting or cockfighting which have been outlawed in every state,” said Stennes.
A rancher south of Burns speaks for many in Oregon’s southeast corner: “You can’t legislate in Salem what we do over here.”
Although we find no sign of a hunt in Burns, it is happening. At a store outside of town, owner Scott Davies explains the low profile.
“There’s been such a backlash with coyotes and coyote hunting and predator control that they don’t advertise as much as they used to. It’s kind of ‘If you know, you know’ kind of a deal,” Scott says.
“You can shoot up to ten, whatever you want to shoot. But it’s the five you want to turn in,” said Merle Reid. He’s a former contest organizer who explains the basics and the economic benefits he sees.
“The Classic is an opportunity for hunting enthusiasts to come over and participate,” Reid said. “(We have) people from other states, from Nevada, Idaho and Washington come and participate in it.”
Reid owns the restaurant and a nearby market. He is openly wary of media “spin” on the subject and is also fed up with the judgements of outsiders.
He plays us a voicemail he has kept for six years.
“I’m calling all the way from Massachusetts. This is just wrong. I don’t see why people need to kill just for ****s and giggles.”
What can that woman in Massachusetts, he wonders, really know about life in this wide open corner of Oregon and the challenges sheep and cattle ranchers face?
“Are we being cruel to the animal or are we doing what needs to be done for the ranchers?” Reid asks.
“…they don’t advertise as much as they used to. It’s kind of ‘If you know, you know’ kind of a deal.” — Scott Davies
Eight other states have banned coyote hunts. The Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States was the lead signatory on the petition presented to the Fish and Wildlife Commission in December.
Stennes says the claim that killing lots of coyotes will protect livestock is “just a myth” perpetuated by hunt organizers and participants.
“When you mass-kill coyotes it can actually increase their populations. It disrupts their pack structure and causes them to increase reproduction, so you have more coyotes,” said Stennes.
Bronstein calls the hunts brutal and inhumane.
“It’s a darker side of human nature that we really need to explore and confront,” he said.
He was one of the many who testified in support of the petition and says the hunts give true hunters a bad name.
“It’s time for an awakening and for a new way of living and being humans on this planet that we share with all of our living ancestors, including the coyote,” Bronstein said.
On the Friday we were in Burns, it was check-in day for the Coyote Classic. We were not welcomed. The organizer told us politely but clearly that he doesn’t want us anywhere near the buildings he has rented.
We took the hint and left, driving 30 miles southeast to the T.I. Ranch to meet Rusty Inglis. He’s the president of the county farm bureau.
“A rancher’s profit margin is so slim that you can’t afford any kind of loss,” Rusty said. “You’re never going to wipe coyotes out. And ranchers, that’s not their intention. The intention is to reduce numbers so they are not preying on our livestock, our livelihood. It’s that simple.”
“When you mass-kill coyotes it can actually increase their populations,” — Humane Society of the U.S. spokesperson Katie Stennes
He’s been running cattle here for decades and says, in recent years, predator control efforts at the federal, state and county levels have lessened.
“When we have something like a coyote contest, I am going to say ‘Hey, I need it! You won’t let me do it the other way.’ It’s just me and those type of things. And they’re not unethical, in my opinion. If I shoot a coyote or they shoot a coyote, what’s the difference?” Inglis said.
He tells us he never goes out on the ranch without a gun and if he sees a coyote anywhere in the calving area, he will shoot them.
“They’re a canine and they’re real smart and they’re going to figure out this is where we calve, this is where the babies will be,” Inglis said.
He’s killed five this winter, he says. Some years he shoots more, some years less.
“Now I don’t participate in the coyote contests, but I’ll say it again. It’s a great deal. It helps us a lot,” Rusty said.
The T.I. Ranch is about 250 miles from Salem. People in this area see the latest push to outlaw events like the Coyote Classic as just the latest battle in Oregon’s long-running east-west, urban-rural culture war.
“What we’re all really afraid of is this is just an initial attempt to take more control,” said County Commissioner Shelman
She points out that three hunt-banning bills have failed in recent years in the Oregon legislature.
“If within that legislative process it could not get accomplished, what job is it of unelected officials taking that charge to themselves?” Shelman said.
Her family manages a cattle grazing cooperative. Killing coyotes is something that comes with the territory.
“As we fed this morning out here, we had five coyotes running across this back field.” Shelman said. “And we already called up one of the contestants to come take care of those tonight.”
“They’re a canine and they’re real smart and they’re going to figure out this is where we calve.” — Rancher Rusty Inglis
Contest opponents say they’re targeting just the organized hunts, not all culling of coyotes. They hope a new draft rule from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife will do the job of their rejected petition.
“They’re cruel. They’re unsporting. They’re ecologically destructive” Stennes said.
As ranchers, hunters and hunt-haters wait and watch, ODFW tells us there is no timeline for a final decision from staff.
Inglis and Shelman argue ODFW just doesn’t have jurisdiction over predator control. That’s the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture.
Another thing that doesn’t sit very well with those who support these hunts is that eight of the 15 organizations signing that petition are from out of state.