A West Jordan couple provided Utah wildlife officials with 237 coyote scalps over the past couple of years, cashing in each one for $50 under a bounty program targeting the pesky predator.
The couple’s hauls were among the biggest submitted in the five years since the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) implemented the program in the name of protecting mule deer, but Jared Don Gasser and Stacey Lyne DeMille’s productivity was hardly unique. Several Utah bounty participants turn in dozens of scalps a year, along with paperwork that is supposed to indicate where, when and how they killed the coyotes.
But investigators eventually determined the Gassers’ paperwork was filled with deceptions, according to felony fraud charged filed last month in 3rd District Court. Cellphone and work records showed they were not where their compensation forms claimed they were on the days they bagged coyotes. Ninety-five were actually killed in Nevada by other people.
Besides ripping off taxpayers to the tune of $11,850, scams like this compromise the data state biologists like Xaela Walden gather to gauge the bounty’s efficacy and to study coyote populations, prompting agency staff to severely tighten the rules for participation.
Effective this month, the agency will no longer accept scalps covered in maggots; taken from a coyote killed by someone else, including roadkills; and that are more than a year old, or are so decomposed or damaged that officials cannot confirm it came from a coyote.
“It makes it difficult to analyze and assess how effective the program is when we don’t know how may coyotes are actually being removed because some participants will store coyotes for up to two or three years in their freezer and then submit them all at once,” Walden, DWR’s predator control coordinator, told the Utah Wildlife Board at its May 31 meeting.
The program was launched at the behest of sportsmen’s groups that lobbied the Legislature to pass the 2012 Mule Deer Protection Act aimed at reducing coyotes, which prey on fawns. To collect the bounty, participants must turn in the scalp with ears attached and the lower jaw.
It has been a hit with hunters.
Last month, Brett Smith of Hooper was returning from an elk hunt scouting trip with his teenage son when they spotted a coyote on a back road near Nephi. They shot the animal and Smith brought the scalp and jaw to DWR’s Odgen office at a scheduled drop-off event on his way to his son’s football practice.
While many bounty participants roam the field to specifically target coyotes, Smith is among a large share who shoot a coyote while doing something else when an opportunity arose.
This was the only scalp Smith has ever redeemed for a bounty. Using a truck tailgate as a table, Walden, the state biologist, went to work processing the specimen. She clipped off the ear tip for a DNA sample and pried a tooth from the jaw, bagging each. Under the reforms, bounty collectors must turn in enough of the lower jaw to yield the premolar, a tooth that records the animal’s age.
“We send in a subsample of roughly 10 percent of [teeth from] all coyotes every other year. It gives us an idea of the population structure,” Walden said. “If we start seeing younger age classes coming in, it probably means we are taking a good percentage of the population. If they consistently remain about the same age structure, we may not be having much of an effect or it could be the fact that younger coyotes are easier to kill.”
Last year a record 11,505 scalps were redeemed, exceeding the $500,000 the Legislature has set aside to fund the program.
“We have consistently had more coyotes turned in every year and with that there is a potential to exhaust our entire budget and if that happens we [would] have to halt the program until there is more money to spend,” said Walden. Should that happen under the new reforms, bounty payments will be reduced by $5 the following year.
Big game enthusiasts embraced the changes, even though a new requirement to take a photo with a smartphone app could exclude participants who aren’t tech-savvy.
“Killing coyotes is controversial,” said Miles Moretti of the Mule Deer Foundation told the Wildlife Board. “We definitely need to eliminate the fraud and abuse in the program because that gives all of us a black eye.”
While Don Peay of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife offered to cover the program’s budget shortfalls, other wildlife groups remain deeply opposed to a bounty, which promotes indiscriminate killing.
“The science doesn’t support it,” said Kirk Robinson of the Western Wildlife Conservancy. “It encourages the killing of animals for no good reason and it involves taxpayer money.”
Critics like Robinson, point out that coyotes have proliferated because they are filling an ecological niche once filled by larger predators like cougars and wolves that hunters have rooted out.
Coyotes remain abundant in the face of intense hunting and trapping pressure, and have greatly expanded their range, even into urban settings. In the past six years, according to DWR, at least 90,000 coyotes have been killed, largely paid for with state money, yet there is little evidence indicating a reduction in populations.
Bounty proponents say coyotes take a heavy toll on young mule deer, leaving fewer for people to hunt. Without reliable data on the coyotes turned in for bounties, however, there is no way to determine whether the program is protecting fawns from the jaws of coyotes.
DWR biologists have found that many bounty collectors give rough estimates of where they killed the animal, or simply lie to keep their hunting sites secret.
“It’s really important to have accurate GPS locations, otherwise we don’t know where they are being removed from,” said Walden, a Utah State University graduate student who is using bounty data for predator research. “I’m looking at whether [coyote removal] is affecting mule deer fawning.”
To ensure more precise location data, DWR will require bounty collectors, starting next year, to carry smartphones equipped with a special app. Hunters are going to be required to take a picture, enter the mode of execution and its gender, and press “upload.” The app relays a geocoded image to DWR’s database.
“The app will make it difficult for guys to cheat the program,” Walden said. “We have cases in all five [DWR] regions where participants tried to submit coyotes taken from other states.”
So far one case has resulted in fraud convictions, while the Gassers are awaiting court dates, according to Rick Olson, DWR’s law enforcement section chief.
The Gasser case proved to be fairly simple to substantiate. Olson’s officers build cases by getting warrants to examine phone records, which can reveal a person’s location at the times they place calls then determine whether the person was near where they reported killing the coyote.
The Gassers’ paperwork reported that 118 were killed at times when the phone or employment records showed they were at home or work. For example, investigators determined DeMille was working at Copper Canyon Elementary School at the times she reported shooting one-third of the 33 coyotes she turned in. According to charging documents, only 24 of the coyote scalps the Gassers turned in were actually taken at the dates and places reported.