Washington state wildlife managers are considering eliminating hunting competitions, particularly of coyotes, citing ethical and social concerns.
“Sometimes we have to do something for social reasons and this is one of them, in my mind,” said Barbara Baker, the Thurston County commissioner who requested the commission consider the changes. “This is the kind of thing that gives hunters a bad name.”
Hunting competitions and contests are organized events in which participants compete for prizes and awards by killing animals. Coyote derbies, in which competitors try and kill as many of the animals as they can, are the most common.
The competitions were long seen as necessary to keep coyote populations in control and protect livestock and other animals
More recent research, however, shows that competitions have nearly no lasting impact on coyote populations. Some research indicates that coyotes have pups more frequently in response to increased hunting pressure. Coyotes are famously resilient. Despite a century or more of focused hunting, the wild canines thrive in many of the United States’ largest cities – including Chicago, New York and Portland.
The Washington Fish and Wildlife commission, a nine-person citizen group appointed by the governor, took the first steps necessary to change the relevant laws at their February meeting in Olympia.
Opponents of hunting contests claim the competitions are outdated and little more than state-sanctioned wildlife killings.
At least eight states in the past two years have banned or severely restricted the competitions, including Arizona and New Mexico. Oregon lawmakers are considering banning coyote-hunting contests, as are lawmakers in Wisconsin. Unlike in other states, the decision to curtail hunting competitions does not have to go through the Washington Legislature.
Commissioners asked the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to issue a CR-101, which announces the intent to review or write rules on a particular subject.
Currently, WDFW issues permits to hunting competitions. Prizes for the competitions may not exceed $2,000 and competitors must abide by all relevant hunting rules and regulations. Plus, the competitions may not “adversely affect wildlife resources.”
In Washington, there is no bag limit or season on coyotes.
In 2019, WDFW issued two permits, said Anis Aoude, WDFW’s game division manager. The most the department has issued was six, he said.
The request to review came from the commission. There is no biological reason to either promote or eliminate contests, he said.
“But … it seems like the way society is progressing these things are probably not as accepted as they once (were),” he said. “But from our perspective, biologically, it’s not an issue. But we do consider the social parts of it as well.”
One idea floated by commissioners was to ban numerical hunting competitions of furbearing animals. That would prevent coyote competitions as they’re commonly practiced, but could still allow for other types of competitions.
Commissioners also discussed cracking down on unpermitted competitions, but the only decision made was to open the rules and evaluate public input, said Commissioner Kim Thorburn, from Spokane.
The competitions have their defenders.
While competitions may not have a long-term impact on coyote populations, Matt Mimnaugh, a board member of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council and the chairman of the big game committee, said coyote derbies can buy struggling species time.
“Out at the Swanson Lakes area there is a population of state-endangered sage grouse,” he said. “That area is overrun with … coyotes and the state can’t even begin to get rid of them.”
A coyote killing contest would be one way to temporarily relieve the predation pressure, he said. Mimnaugh understands why some oppose the contests, but he urges them to divorce emotions from the decision.
“It’s a social thing and an emotional thing,” he said. “People who are coming at it from that view need to realize that you should never make wildlife management decisions based on emotion.”
Brian Lynn, the vice president of marketing and communication for the Sportsmen Alliance, echoed many of Mimnaugh’s arguments. He also worries that the rules, if not written carefully, will ban “much more than just contests.”
“As for giving hunting a bad name, that’s a fairly subjective topic,” he said in a message. “If that’s the standard for doing away with a method, then what’s the argument for keeping other methods that might seem or even are unpalatable to the general public? … Beyond that, do we punish everyone for the poor acts of the few? Punish those that break the law, not everyone.”
At the February commission meeting, representatives from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Humane Society of the United States and California-based Project Coyote lobbied commissioners to ban the contests.
“We’re just excited that the commission is deciding to take this step,” said Sophia Ressler, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope the final rule bans these numerical killing contests, because they’re outdated.”
The outcome is far from decided.
The commission will draft possible rules over the next months. Those rules will most likely be presented to the public in the summer or early fall, Thorburn said.
Thorburn is a veteran of other controversial commission decisions. In particular, she remembers the debate about whether to ban baiting for ungulates. In the end it became a social question, not a scientific one. She sees similarities between the two issues.
“Our responsibility is first and foremost conservation of the resource. If there is no issue with conservation of the resource, then for me it becomes one of these social issues,” she said. “I feel like I shouldn’t take one side or the other. I’m trying to first preserve the resource, and then if it’s available provide it to the entire public.”