Killing Contests Are the Wrong Public Image for Hunting

We have been here before. We have debated predator issues in North America for more than a century. North American wildlife managers, policy-makers, and hunters spent decades engaged in coordinated efforts to demonize and exterminate predators from the landscape. Wild canids received the bulk of anti-predator sentiment and efforts throughout the 20th century. Fueled by flawed science and self-serving economic interests, governments hired hunters, used bounties, killing contests, and a wide range of chemical agents in attempts to eliminate all wolves and coyotes from the landscape. The suite of anti-predator ideologies, policies, and behaviours were unethical and ineffective in the past and they are detrimental to hunting now.

Coyote killing contests – part of the same antiquated paradigm that gave us the failed predator control practices of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as bounties, market hunting, and poisoning – take place annually in several provinces and states. In Canada, all provinces and territories with wolves had bounties by the year 1900, and bounty programs were closed across the country by the 1970s. Throughout the United States, predator-killing poisons were in commercial production beginning in 1834 and widespread use until their ban in the 1970s, but not before they killed millions of target predators and caused countless incidental deaths in other species.

Management agencies sometimes present coyote killing contests as part of a management or conservation strategy directed at predator population management. Hunting and firearms stores often sponsor these contests, such as one that took place in Ontario in winter 2021. Generally, hunters submit carcasses or other proof of a kill and are eligible for various prizes (e.g., largest coyote, most coyotes killed, or entered into a draw based on how many are killed).

Killing contests should have no place in the social-cultural or policy landscapes of hunting today. They are not grounded in the best available scientific knowledge as a management strategy and make no useful contribution to conservation (aside from, some may argue, generating revenue through license sales). Contests trivialize the life of animals by presenting them as little more than a commodity to be exploited for prizes. These events also rob the coyote of the deepest and most meaningful claim a species can have to exist on a landscape. Coyotes evolved in North America and are woven into the entire ecological fabric and history of this continent. To treat them as disposable pests worth no more than the prize money from a contest harms both the essence of hunting and the social relationship between hunters and non-hunters.

Coyote killing contests rely on archaic ideas about the biology of the species and deliberately neglect the abundant knowledge we now have about the importance of healthy predator-prey relationships on the landscape. Killing contests also draw criticism from many hunters who see how detrimental they are to the image of hunting and its continued acceptance in 21st century North American culture.

Legal and Ethical Are Not the Same

In responses to criticisms of killing contests, the hunting community often relies on arguments mismatched to the nature of the criticisms. Hunting organizations focus on the legalities of the events, emphasizing that hunters are operating within regulated seasons and limits. Hunters stick to their guns on their perceived right to hunt and take the position that as long as they are following the law, the events are beyond social reproach.

It is true that stores carefully choose wording to ensure contests fall within the confines of hunting regulations, which generally prohibit people from profiting from hunting or paying hunters along the lines of former bounty systems. For example, based on consultation with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), a store sponsoring a contest in Belleville, Ontario in 2021 adjusted the wording of the rules to “exclude the prize per coyote as well as the prize for the most coyotes. Both have been determined to be promoting a bounty”.

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But legal and ethical are not synonymous.

Management agencies set coyote hunting regulations based on population numbers, the species’ reproductive biology, and expectations around the level of hunting pressure populations can sustain. There are many jurisdictions in North America where there are no closed seasons or limits for coyotes (meaning that they can be hunted all year and with no limits). However, regulations are still based on an assessment of expected hunting pressure and coyote biology.

Sponsors and proponents of contests go to great lengths to defend the events based on their careful navigation of hunting regulations. But let’s not forget that regulations have changed dramatically over the years. As we saw, bounties used to be legal and this changed to reflect both mounting social pressure and the emergence of more sophisticated ecological sciences and increasing volumes of research that demonstrated the misguided notions on which predator killing campaigns rested.

Eventually, bounty proponents were unable to continue to ignore the science. Suggesting that something is right and ethical simply because it can be slotted – and half-manipulated – into a legal grey area is short-sighted and lazy. As hunters, we can do better than this and need to do better if we hope to be able to respond with any amount of reasonable intelligence to the growing criticism and organized opposition to killing contests.

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac

In some communications defending killing contests, such as one released by the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters in February 2021, organizations and hunters will attempt to cast any opposition to killing contests as anti-hunting sentiment writ large. The problem with this characterization is that it ignores opposition to killing contests from within the hunting community, most notably those individuals and organizations who emphasize the use of science-based wildlife management.

I support the use of hunting to manage coyote populations based on the best available science. Certainly, we need regulations for coyote hunting and at the very least, hunters need to operate within the confines of those regulations. However, following the quantitative guidelines of hunting regulations does not necessarily mean that we are hunting ethically. The hunt is the amalgamation of everything we do and draw upon, including the relevant regulations. But the hunt is also more than the regulations. The hunt is the bigger picture that includes our purpose, approach, and ethics. Using the legalities of hunting regulations to support and justify something like killing contests is a misuse of the purpose of hunting regulations, which are intended to facilitate the use of hunting as a conservation tool and informed wildlife management.

Safeguard Predator Hunting

One of the reasons we need to be extra conscientious about the public image of predator hunting – and admittedly, one of my selfish reasons for railing against the socially harmful repercussions of killing contests – is that predator hunting is often the target of anti-hunting campaigns. For example, consider that British Columbia cancelled the grizzly bear hunt in 2017 due to public pressure and California introduced a bill to ban black bear hunting in 2021 for the same reasons. Environmental groups in B.C. have since focused on efforts to end black bear, wolf, and cougar hunting.

Predators evoke emotions in people that are somehow – and for reasons we have collectively philosophized about for probably hundreds of years – different than how we feel about herbivorous prey species. The non-hunting public appears predisposed to be more emotional and upset about predator hunting, so killing contests provide perfect – and understandable – fodder for anti-hunting campaigns. When organizations look for opportunities to remove hunting seasons and issues to coalesce public support against hunting, they often focus on predator species such as bears, cougars, and wolves. Campaigns often focus on what they perceive and present as the frivolous nature of predator hunting and its inherent focus on ego and trophies.

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But I love to eat many predator species, so I do not want to see hunting opportunities for these species eroded because of justifiable opposition to a wasteful and egotistical practice like killing contests. Black bear is one of my absolute favourite wild meats. I also love to eat marine predator species, including seals, salmon, and squid.

A ringed seal I shot in 2018. I cooked this seal several different ways and enjoyed all of it.

The more we allow predator species (e.g., bears and cougars) to be conceptually separated in the public’s imagination from prey species (e.g., deer and moose), the more two things happen.

First, progressively removing hunting opportunities one species at a time weakens wildlife managers’ abilities to use and implement a full suite of management tools. Hunting is one tool available to managers and removing that constricts their ability to use a comprehensive and contextually specific approach to species management.

The second effect of separating predator and prey species is to erode the public’s broader understanding of ecological dynamics and influence public value systems based on anthropomorphic categories. Predator species are not more or less important, valuable, or sacred than prey species. But anti-hunting campaigns that target predator hunting conceptually remove predators from their ecological interactions and treat them as something to venerate just as killing contests villainize the same species.

I want to see a management system that appropriately values all wildlife and has access to all the tools needed to manage ecosystems carefully and effectively. I also want to be able to continue to hunt certain predator species for food and not have those opportunities jeopardized because of a practice that was never truly intended to benefit wildlife or their habitats. As hunters, we need to emphasize the predators we hunt for reasons that both the public and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation characterize as a “legitimate purpose”. We should focus on the community-building, food, and conservation benefits of predator hunting regimes. We should also be willing to shut down hunts and practices that are both socially unsustainable and ecologically backwards.

Biological and Social Sustainability

When I started hunting 10 years ago, a local hunting store ran a coyote contest. At the time, I was still learning about the rich history of the organized conservation movement in North America. I was just beginning to think deliberately about hunting ethics.

However, I knew that something about shooting an animal for a contest didn’t sit right with me. It felt wrong and I looked for a way to ground those feelings in a clearly articulated ethical basis and scientific rationale. As I found, hunters had been here before. As a group, we had already grappled with debates over killing predators in general and coyotes in particular. I also found that the non-hunting public was paying attention.

Contests almost always draw intense criticisms from anti-hunters and environmental organizations who launch petitions, political campaigns, and lawsuits to band them. Project Coyote, a California-based organization, created the National Coalition to End Wildlife Killing Contests, which works on campaigns to ban or restrict killing contests through regulations and legislation. The Coalition has been involved in banning and restricting contests in eight U.S. states, with an additional five states considering legislation in 2021. In Ontario, the organization Earthroots launched a campaign against the killing contest in winter 2021. Other organizations such as Wolf Awareness and Wolf Matters have taken on bounties and killing contests throughout Canada.

The National Coalition to End Wildlife Killing Contests has worked on campaigns in 13 States as of 2021. Hunters need to consider whether this practice still fits with the image and identity we want for ethical, meaningful hunting. Source: Project Coyote

Ultimately, hunters and non-hunters both need to remember that wildlife management exists within a social-ecological system. It is important to understand the ecological and environmental factors in managing wildlife and decision-making. But it is also critical to consider the social and cultural influences on political decisions with regards to wildlife. The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation says that “science is the proper tool for discharge of wildlife policy”. It also says that wildlife is a public trust resource and that hunting will be managed based on democratic principles.

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Therefore, as hunters, we cannot argue that non-consumptive users of wildlife and their priorities should be excluded from wildlife policies. Otherwise, we would also need to accept that the priorities of hunters and other consumptive users should also be excluded from consideration. While I don’t think that opinions and political whims should dictate policy that has lasting impacts on wildlife, I recognize that wildlife is managed within the context of social-ecological systems. Therefore, managers need to consider public values to create wildlife policy that is both biological and socially sustainable, including maintaining hunting opportunities.

Conclusions

Coyotes impact deer and other game species through predation. This is not the point of this discussion. Rather, accepting coyote predation, I take issue with two things. The first is the idea that coyotes are committing some kind of moral sin by killing and eating deer, rather than simply acting out a dynamic that is thousands of years old. The second thing I take issue with is the belief that we can – and should – stop or reduce coyote predation through intensive hunting that deviates markedly and tragically from the nature of our approach to the rest of hunting.

As hunters, we need to reckon with the fact that coyote killing contests and, indeed, anti-predator sentiments more broadly, are not based on science or the ancient ecology of North American landscapes that gave us the wildlife we enjoy interacting with today. We need to see the social damage these events do to hunting and the moral damage they do to the heart of hunting. This call – to acknowledge that contests are not about management or ecology – is also not new.

As Dan Flores recounts in his book Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History, a 1964 report commissioned by the government of John F. Kennedy in the United States examined the mass coordinated coyote killing that the U.S. government had conducted since the early 20th century. Even in 1964, the board that prepared the report acknowledged to the government that predator killing in the United States “has become an end in itself and no longer is a balanced component of an overall scheme of wildlife husbandry and management”.

We often look back to the near extinctions of the market hunting era of the 19th and 20th centuries. We came perilously close to losing bison and pronghorn from North America. Waterfowl populations plummeted to dangerous levels. We look at these events with a mixture of disdain for past actions and pride that we collectively shifted paradigms, changed course, and took strong actions to save species. We are capable of critical self-reflection and the humility to acknowledge that we are wrong. There is no reason we should still engage in something as harmful to the heart, soul, and practice of hunting as killing contests.

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