New legislation introduced last week in the Vermont Senate would ban the controversial practice of coyote-killing tournaments, or “derbies,” that offer awards or cash prizes based on the “size, quality or number” of coyotes taken. Supporters of coyote derbies say they’re necessary for maintaining the health of Vermont’s deer herds. But opponents counter that such bounty hunts only promote a callous disregard for wildlife and give ethical hunters a bad name.
Vermont has between 4500 and 8000 coyotes statewide, according to recent estimates from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. The bill, S.113, introduced by Senator Claire Ayer (D-Addison), would not outlaw coyote trapping or the open-season killing of coyotes, which is already regulated by Fish and Wildlife. Farmers, hunters and others would still be allowed to shoot coyotes, provided they have a valid hunting license.
In 2005, the first annual Howlin’ Hills Coyote Contest in Whiting resulted in the killing of 46 coyotes. That same year, more than 600 hunters participated in the fifth annual Hound Dog Hill Coyote Hunt in Orwell, and killed 70 coyotes for an estimated $5000 grand prize. Typically, the carcasses are discarded once the competition is over.
In recent years, coyote derbies have sparked considerable public outrage among hunters and non-hunters alike.
“Excess kills of this kind really showcase the tendencies of a stubborn few who completely miss the value of animals,” says Joanne Bourbeau, senior state director for the Vermont and New Hampshire chapter of the Humane Society of the United States. “Instead of teaching kids that we should treasure nature and value animals, contest kills send the message that entire species of animals are disposable.”
In an effort to avoid negative publicity, most coyote derbies have since “gone underground.” As a result, state wildlife officials say they have no idea how many are held each year. But, there’s plenty of evidence that coyote derbies are still being held, according to Holly Tippett with the group, Vermonters for Safe Hunting and Wildlife Diversity. She contends that coyote derbies promote a “war-games mentality” and irresponsible hunting behavior.
For example, in recent years Addison County landowners have reported derby participants driving their trucks and ATVs across closed property, leaving farm gates ajar and using radio-collared dogs to flush out the wild canines. In response, many angry landowners have barred all hunters from their land.
“In 2005 and 2006, we posted over 3500 acres of previously unposted land in Addison County alone ... so the ethical hunters no longer have access,” Tippett notes. “There’s been a big backlash. It’s given hunting a black eye.”
Supporters of coyote tournaments contend that such contests benefit the health of Vermont’s whitetail deer herds. But wildlife studies don’t bear out that conclusion. Wildlife biologist Kim Royar chairs the furbearer team for Vermont Fish and Wildlife. While she agrees that coyote hunting, in general, has kept the animals wild and averse to humans, she believes that “there’s more public education that needs to occur” about the relationship between deer and coyotes.
“Although coyotes may have a local effect on some of the deer ... over the long term they’re probably not having an effect on the deer population,” Royar says. In fact, she adds, heavily hunted coyote populations can actually increase their rates of reproduction and survival, a conclusion confirmed by a national, peer-reviewed study published in the December 2004 Wildlife Society Bulletin.
Past legislation to ban coyote derbies hasn’t progressed, in part due to opposition from state wildlife officials, who objected to certain provisions, such as one that required rehabilitation for wounded coyotes.
Tippett hopes that state wildlife officials will back the current bill, especially since the provisions they objected to last year have been removed.