Should Utah pay $50 bounties on coyotes killed in controversial contests?

State employees sometimes staff event checkins to process bounties sought by contestants as they bring in truckloads of dead predators

(Rick Bowmer | AP) A coyote travels across ice formed on the Great Salt Lake Monday, Jan. 31, 2022, on Antelope Island. Since 2012, Utah wildlife officials have paid a $50 bounty on coyotes. An unknown portion of those taxpayer-funded bounties are paid on coyotes taken in controversial killing contests, that critics blast as an insult to Utah's wildlife heritage.

Many Utahns think of November as a time to cast ballots for political candidates, rake leaves, pick through leftover Halloween candy and prepare to give thanks in front of the holiday season.

For some, it is a time to shoot as many coyotes as they can in a single day.

Late fall marks the resumption of Utah’s wildlife killing contests, where an unknown number of coyotes and other animals are shot by teams angling to take the largest haul of dead “dogs” stacked in the bed of their pickups by the end of the day.

Contest organizers frame these contests as a family-oriented public service since they help remove a “nuisance” predator from the landscape, one blamed for declining deer populations and livestock losses. But wildlife advocates see these events as an abuse of the West’s wildlife heritage and pointless celebrations of cruelty and bloodlust.

“They’re totally unethical. They accomplish no management goal. They are disruptive to the ecosystem, they cause a lot of pain and suffering and only for one thing, and that is the gratification of the participants,” said Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Salt Lake City-based Western Wildlife Conservancy. “They try to cover that up oftentimes by taking a portion of the registration fees and they’ll give them to a local charity.”

Contest organizers dispute Robinson’s characterization of the events, but two contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune declined to discuss the contests in detail.

“No matter what we say, it’s not going to change anybody’s mind and it’s not going to open anybody’s eyes to anything,” said Trent Wilson, who oversaw the 2nd Annual Castle Country Coyote Classic held Nov. 19 near Price. “It’s better for us just to do our own thing and not be in the public eye.”

One former event organizer claimed contests cause no real harm.

“People like to go out and people already hunt coyotes. You are never going to end that. It’s a friendly competition. Are you going to get rid of fantasy football?” he said. “It’s no worse than [government contractors] flying airplanes to eradicate coyotes.”

Asking that his name not be used, he said he stopped organizing contests because of death threats he received from animal-rights activists.

Regardless of how Utahns feel about these contests, their tax dollars are indirectly supporting them. That’s because a portion of the $50 bounties the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) awards for dead coyotes are doled out for animals killed in the contests.

Under state policy, DWR cannot support any predator-killing contests or similar activities that “may portray hunting in an unethical fashion, devalue the predator or be offensive to the general public.” Because coyotes are not protected wildlife, the contests remain legal and contest-killed coyotes may be redeemed for bounties, according to DWR spokeswoman Faith Heaton Jolley.

Officials acknowledge that DWR staff have been present at past events, such as the 2018 Utah Coyote Derby in Spanish Fork, to process bounties and collect scalps. The agency’s involvement was not to facilitate the contests, but to ensure that out-of-state coyotes are not being turned in by contestants to fraudulently collect Utah’s $50-a-head bounty.

“This had been an issue in the past because this particular event includes several other Western states,” Jolley said in an email. “We don’t typically attend these events because we don’t support or endorse these types of contests, but we wanted to protect taxpayer funds by only making payments for eligible coyotes that had been harvested in Utah.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Eight states have so far banned these contests, but federal action has yet to gain traction, according to Michelle Lute, conservation director for Project Coyote, a California-based nonprofit that promotes coexistence between human communities and predators.

“Unfortunately, this is still an uphill battle that we’re facing, despite the fact that the public, by and large, supports ending this practice because it’s egregious. It’s not science based. There’s no evidence that it benefits anyone. And it’s done purely out of entertainment,” Lute said. “Most Americans and most societies generally find that to take a life, you have to have a good, justified reason. Entertainment or fun is not one of them.”

Contestants generally hunt in two-person teams and must set up their stands and calling devices on public land. To prevent cheating, the hunters are increasingly required to document the time of their kills by using their cellphones to record a time-stamped video of them shaking the dead coyote prior to the onset of rigor mortis.

A contest held Nov. 5 in Hatch awarded prizes not just for the most coyotes killed, but also raccoons, foxes and jackrabbits.

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service almost always require permits for contests, races and other public events staged on public lands in Utah. Perhaps because coyote-shooting teams are spread over vast areas and the checkins are held on private property, the wildlife contests are not generally expected to get permits from land management agencies.

Predator contests are also popular in Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada, where coyotes are also considered agricultural pests with none of the protections accorded other native mammals. Those contests are also not regulated or monitored.

State wildlife officials have no idea how many animals are killed, which species, and where and how they are killed. Contestants are not obligated to follow the rules for hunting big game and birds that ensure fair chase, sustainable harvests and humane kills.

(Utah Coyote Hunters via Facebook) A screenshot from the private Facebook group Utah Coyote Hunters shows a member showing off a recent coyote kill. The Tribune has removed the identities of the poster and commenters.

The lack of rules is apparent on coyote hunters’ social media, where they post photos of themselves clad in camo with their weapons, often a tripod-mounted .223-caliber rifle, and the coyotes they killed in the field, piled up in a truck, even arranged to make political statements. In one post, hunters are posed with their middle fingers extended and the carcasses linked to form the letters FJB in an apparent disapproving reference to the current occupant of the White House.

One participant in predator contests, a welder living in Malad, Idaho, posts his exploits on social media under the handle Coyote Assassins, whose mission is “go on a crusade to film as many coyotes being killed as possible.” Their feed, which serves as an advertising platform for the manufacturers of hunting gear, includes videos of dogs tearing apart coyotes.

“Beyond the rules governing hunting in general, contests are not regulated or even tracked. Few of the regulations for deer apply to coyotes. They are an unprotected non-game species,” said Roger Phillips, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “There is a question of legality and there is a question of ethics. Showing videos of coyotes being attacked by dogs falls outside the realm of ethics, but it might be legal since hunters are allowed to use dogs to hunt predators in Idaho.”

Advocates like Robinson contend these kinds of displays give hunting a black eye. Utah can start rectifying that by banning contests and getting rid of the bounty program, he argued.

“Wildlife is a public trust. Even if it’s not managed by the state, it still belongs to all,” Robinson said “To allow people to go out there to have fun killing things is just plain wrong.”

Robinson acknowledged a contest ban is outside the purview of the Utah Wildlife Board and he is now leading a campaign urging county commissions to pass non-binding resolutions opposing them.

“It might require a constitutional amendment or amendment to the state code to actually outlaw,” he said.

For his part, Wilson, the organizer of the Nov. 19 Castle Country event, remains baffled why such contests upset anyone.

“I don’t understand why these would be so controversial, but fishing derbies are not. The fish are more protected than coyotes,” said Wilson. “It doesn’t make much sense to me and it never will.”