THE JANUARY SUN IS WEAK by early afternoon. The grass, brittle and brown. Low-lying cactus punctuate the open area strewn with small rocks and a smattering of mesquite trees. Jake and his friends use an ATV to drive far from town along a well-used dirt road. “What’s the plan?” one of the guys in the backseat asks. There’s a slight pause before Jake responds: “Kill shit; get money.”
Jake (whose last name has been withheld for privacy) and his three buddies are participating in the January 2020 West Texas Big Bobcat Contest. Over the next 23 hours, this foursome will compete against hundreds of other teams for cash, equipment, and other prizes to kill as many foxes, coyotes, and bobcats as they can within the regulation timeframe.
Jake parks the vehicle. The group, dressed in full camouflage, unloads several rifles, ammunition, and calling apparatus. Then, with five words, he aptly describes this whole affair: “It’s about to get nuts.”
It is predator-hunting contest season across the United States. These popular, legally sanctioned events take place on private, state, and federal lands in 42 of the 50 states every year and draw unknown thousands of participants. Tonight’s contest in San Angelo, Texas, is taking place simultaneously with another local hunt, one that includes raccoons. With 717 teams of about four members each participating in Big Bobcat, and upwards of 400 teams of four in the neighboring contest, there are a few thousand hunters out there within two hours driving distance of the weigh-in site, shooting for sport.
Jake and his team have been out every weekend for two months participating in nearby contests. From the multiple high-purse ones like the Gatesville Varmint Contests and the West Texas Big Bobcat Contest, to a myriad of local and church-sponsored competitions, they have been hitting all of them, except the ones for children.
The West Texas Big Bobcat requires an entry fee of $250 per team and the fresh carcasses of at least five foxes or five coyotes for teams to qualify to win the ultimate prize, awarded for the heaviest bobcat killed. In 2020, teams entered 18 “qualifying” cats.
Legally sanctioned wildlife killing contests take place on private, state, and federal lands in 42 of the 50 states every year and draw thousands of participants.
“When I first began, the contests were not as common as they are now, maybe one a month,” Jake says. “Now we’ve had one every weekend for the last eight weekends and we have four more to go. It’s a sport that has grown immensely because everyone is getting into it, and everyone enjoys it.”
States typically hold predator-hunting contests over the winter season. Pennsylvania, for example, held approximately 30 hunts from January to March in 2019, including the Mosquito Creek Sportsmen’s Contest, the largest coyote hunt in the US. In the 2019 Mosquito Creek event, 4,836 registered hunters brought in 193 coyotes, with a 53-pound coyote breaking club records. The top two prizes were more than $9,000 each, and the total hunt purse was more than $48,000, according to the Centre Daily Times.
Killing enough animals to have a chance at a purse requires strategy and specialized equipment. Back in West Texas, Jake sets up a game call system featuring a motorized fake fur tail attached to the top of a remote-controlled speaker that blasts out hundreds of animal calls, including distress calls of a wounded coyote pup, mating calls, and various distressed prey sounds all designed to draw specific animals towards the hunting blind. As the simulated cacophony of pain starts, the team waits. The ploy works and a fox approaches the area. One of the guys fires a shot. “One down,” he says, carrying the carcass by the tail and tossing it into the back of the vehicle.
Jake’s team doesn’t end up killing enough foxes or coyotes to beat out their competitors, but they are not deterred. Their weekends are booked out with contests through the end of March, when the season is over.
Two years on, by the end of the West Texas Big Bobcat’s latest three-contest season, a total of 1,715 teams (approximately 4,000 hunters or more) had competed for a cumulative pay-out of $393,950 in prize money. The contest has paid out a total of $3,140,810 since its 2008 inception. The cost to wild animals? Incalculable.
MOST PREDATORS HAVE LONG been convicted as malevolent in Western folklore, media, and fairytales. As far back as the Middle Ages, the Catholic church associated wolves with the Devil and false prophets. In Little Red Riding Hood, a fairytale dating back to the seventeenth century that has stoked fear of wolves in the hearts of generations of impressionable young minds, the “Big Bad Wolf” lies in wait, tricking an innocent child he wants to gobble up. In the old Looney Tunes cartoons, Wile E. Coyote, Bugs Bunny’s nemesis, continuously fails to catch and kill the rabbit. Instead, he is consistently outwitted, and suffers humiliating and painful defeats in every episode.
Society has been conditioned to believe that carnivores are evil troublemakers, their lives worthless.
Coyotes, foxes, and wolves have been vilified to such an extent that society has been conditioned to believe that carnivores are evil troublemakers, their lives worthless, and that killing them in mass numbers is for the greater good.
It is no surprise, then, that early wildlife-management reasoning in this country advocated wholesale eradication of predators. Or that, since the earliest domestication of animals in the United States, the government has been called upon to help control predators to protect livestock, domestic pets, crops, and game supply for hunting. To this day, the federal government operates a program known as Wildlife Services within the Department of Agriculture that kills hundreds of thousands of birds and tens of thousands of predators annually in service of ranchers and farmers. In 2019, according to the agency’s own report, it killed 404,538 native animals, including 64,131 coyotes, 433 black bears, 200 mountain lions, 605 bobcats, and 324 gray wolves.
This same logic — that predator eradication is necessary to protect crops and livestock — is often used to justify the countless wildlife killing contests held across the US every year. This approach has taken a steep ecological toll, and research shows it’s also ineffective at achieving its purported purpose.
A 2016 study published in the Frontiers of Ecology, for instance, found that using lethal methods often temporarily increased livestock predation. That is because predators like wolves and coyotes are territorial pack animals. Breaking up a pack allows new animals to come in and often prompts “compensatory reproduction” in what remains of the pack, both of which result in raising the predator population in subsequent years. The study, which analyzed lethal and non-lethal interventions against carnivore predation on livestock in North American and European farms, concluded that nonlethal predator control strategies such as guard animals, chemical repellents, and fladry lines (strips of colored fabric strung along fences), were more effective at preventing livestock loss than lethal methods like killing contests and government culls.
But despite having access to a growing body of rigorous scientific research that could help them adopt more ecologically sound wildlife management policies, the federal and the majority of state governments have been slow on the uptake.
Wildlife conservation groups have been pushing to change that. A nationwide campaign by a coalition of more than 55 animal rights and conservation groups, as well as scientists, hunters, ranchers, and local representatives, has been working since 2018 to educate federal and state government agencies about why predator hunting does not work as a wildlife management tool and how it damages ecosystems. The campaign, which is led by Project Coyote and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), has also been advocating for a permanent ban on all wildlife killing contests. (Project Coyote is a project of Earth Island Institute, which publishes the Journal.)
“Predator management as currently practiced doesn’t work for a variety of reasons,” says Dave Parsons, carnivore conservation biologist with the Rewilding Institute, which is a member of the national coalition. “But trying to tell people that you can have fewer coyotes if you don’t shoot them is really hard.”
So far, the coalition’s efforts have resulted in eight states outlawing indiscriminate wildlife killing contests, derbies, and tournaments.
Still, the contests have strong support and enthusiastic participation in many states throughout the nation.
THE FIRST THING YOU NOTICE is the smell, a strong musty stench that wafts with the release of heat from the low winter sun. Imagine a decaying mouse under the porch and multiply that by a hundredfold. On approach, the odor grows stronger; there is a gaminess now. When you are close enough to see the source — row upon rows of dead animal carcasses — you sense the added smell of fresh blood. Grey foxes, coyotes, and bobcats. Each animal stretched out to facilitate counting. Pickup trucks rigged with hunting stands, racks, and swivel high seats line the gravel parking lot alongside the animals.
Time is up for participants of the January 2020 West Texas Big Bobcat Contest. Contestants are gathering in the parking lot of the 4-H club. Of the 717 teams, only those who believe they have a chance at a prize park their rig. Groups of contestants cluster in their teams, waiting with their carcasses. Bleary-eyed from being up all night, cups of coffee in some hands, beers in others, the participants mingle within a sea of dusty boots and dirt-caked tires. Whatever adrenaline fueled the long hours of the hunt is now wearing off. A loudspeaker in the background makes announcements, calls out raffle prizes, and plays music. A commentator sends out “thank yous” to an extensive list of national and local supporters. Hunters stroll around checking out their competition.
On the far side of the armory, two young men in camouflage sweatshirts and jeans stand with hands in front pockets watching while an inspector thrusts a meat thermometer into every inert body — rules require each kill to be fresh, a safeguard against cheating. They stand proudly behind rows and rows of dead foxes.
“How did it go out there?” I ask, “It looks like you guys did really well.”
The men grin. “Yeah. We’ve been working at this for a long time,” one says, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.
“It used to be a small guy thing to help out the ranchers. Now it is a massive sport.”
“We have a secret spot,” says his partner, voice confident with impending success. “We only went for foxes, no bobcats. We got 94. I haven’t seen anyone else near that today.”
Those competing for the largest bobcat drag their kills by the neck through the dirt lot and into the arena with pocket chains: a metal cuff and chain link lead, small enough to keep in your pocket and then hook to the animal so you don’t have to bear the weight of it. Pocket chains are being given as prizes inside.
The cats are weighed in the arena. Names are called for potential winners to go in for their polygraph tests, another way to ensure against cheating. Families have gathered to greet their hunters and community members take seats on the bleachers to watch the show. Raffle prizes are handed out, with sponsors ranging from hunting gear companies to taxidermy shops to the local farm supply stores. The team with the heaviest bobcat will take home $50,000. With one of the highest purses in the nation, teams now fly in from other states to compete in this event. The vibe is festive and anticipatory. Contestants have a second wind and are regaling each other with stories.
“Then I realized it was a German Shepard,” one young man is telling another, “but I had already shot it.”
A middle-aged couple is watching the raffle. The man has a short, scruffy beard that he runs his hands through as he talks. He has been involved in these contests since they began. “It was always a lot of fun,” he says. “But now, this thing has gotten so big that people are coming in and buying out landowners for hunting rights, pushing other people out of it. The competition has gotten pretty intense.” He looks around, down at his feet, then fixes a stare at his raffle ticket. (A growing trend in bigger contests is contestants paying for exclusive hunting rights pre-contest, pushing out locals and driving up the financial stakes.)
“I find it exhilarating,” says his wife, who appears to be one of the only female team members here. “I set the lights and wait.” Her voice shifts up an octave, “When the lights shine on the animals and I can see their eyes, that is what is thrilling. I don’t even care about the killing part.”
Her husband looks up from his ticket, his number still not called. “It used to be a small guy thing to help out the ranchers. Now it is a massive sport.” As if he senses he might be stepping into the wrong territory he adds, “The PETA people don’t understand. It’s all good for them to live in their cities with their little poodle dogs — but they don’t know the real issues that people face with predators killing their livestock.”
It’s true: It’s easy for those with limited perspective to criticize the contests. Still, even some ranchers say killing contests aren’t the answer.
THE WINDING ROADS OF Hillingdon Ranch, located in the Texas Hill Country and continuously operated by the Giles family since 1887, pass through undulating hills filled with sheep and flat grasslands with goats, cattle, and deer, and lead to several outbuildings where various family members live. The ranch contains over 13,000 acres of carefully and sustainably managed land.
It’s the Monday after the Big Bobcat contest, and I’m having lunch with the Giles family, discussing how they manage livestock predation and what they think about killing contests. Siblings and grandchildren, sons, daughters, spouses, and a friend or two join in lively conversation over sandwiches, fresh lemonade, and homemade cookies, a pre-Covid luxury. Cowboy hats hang on pegs throughout the entrance; thick stucco walls are adorned with family photos in sepia tones and old maps.
“We are people of the land,” says Robin Giles, grandson of the ranch’s founder, Alfred Giles. “I don’t think many people understand that. When you have lived on these places your whole life, cared for them, made a living from them, then you turn into a person of the land.”
The Giles and ranchers like them across the country experience depredation of their livestock, sheep, goats, horses, and domestic dogs at the hands of predator species, particularly coyotes. Lethal predator control has long been a part of their ranch management strategies.
The nature of predator hunting contests appears to fly in the face of traditional hunting ethics.
“Our small stock are very susceptible to predation by our most common predators, the coyote,” Giles adds. “I have so much respect for their cunning and ability to make a living on me. But we do have to control our numbers. If we have a killing coyote on our property, we have to take care of it. We have learned many times that if we do not control, then we are out of business.”
While Giles considers predator control a necessary part of his business, he says they normally are hunting just one problem animal at a time. Wildlife contests represent something different. “[They] started out about control, but now it’s all sport,” he says. “The thing that worries me most about the predator contests is that it might give a bad connotation to what we are doing. We might be demonized for what we do.”
“Their prizes are getting so big the contests attract a totally different kind of person and a totally different kind of attitude,” he adds. “It’s monetarily driven. [They are] just getting out of hand. This seems to be gross killing.”
Indeed, the nature of predator hunting contests appears to fly in the face of traditional hunting ethics, which decry wanton waste and hold up the principle of “fair chase,” which means the animal being hunted has to have a chance to escape. At these contests, however, animals are often killed by any means possible — including through use of lures and distress calls — and most carcasses are thrown away after the hunt.
But many hunting organizations — and hunters themselves — make a distinction between hunting “game” animals like deer and moose and killing “varmints” like wolves, coyotes, rabbits, and crows. Under state rules and regulations, animals classified as non-game have few protections and often can be killed at any time in unlimited numbers, with no bag limits or seasons.
Even the Boone and Crockett Club, one of the oldest and most influential hunting organizations in the country, which outlines in great detail its guidelines for members’ ethical behavior, does not consider predator killing contests as hunting. In a statement made at the 2017 NRA Hunters Leadership Forum, Keith Balfourd, director of marketing for the Club, noted that sportsmen “hold themselves to a high standard of fair chase when hunting game animals and game bird.” He added that “the Club does encourage sportsmen, when participating in predator and varmint reductions, to do so with a humane approach.”
While Boone and Crocket may still see wildlife killing contests as somehow exempt from traditional hunting ethics, elsewhere the tide is beginning to turn.
PROPONENTS OF THE CONTESTS consistently and correctly point out that their activities are protected (and in many cases, encouraged and supported) by state and federal laws. They say they are simply misunderstood victims of vocal animal rights activists. But that argument is beginning to show cracks.
Thanks in large part to the dedicated campaigning of groups like Project Coyote and the HSUS, policy makers are coming to terms with the fact that these contests are not consistent with science-based, ethical wildlife management practices. In recent years, several states have taken either regulatory or legislative action against the contests. Most recently, Maryland, Washington, and Colorado enacted bans on wildlife killing competitions, joining California, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Arizona. Similar bills are pending in New York and New Jersey.
Wildlife advocates hope that their campaign to end killing contests will also further a broader discussion around predator control policies.
Government officials are also increasingly speaking out against the practice. New Mexico’s Stephanie Garcia Richards, the first woman, first Latina, and first educator to serve as New Mexico’s Commissioner of Public Lands, signed her first executive order as commissioner to ban hunting contests on the nine million acres of State Trust Lands in January 2019. At the signing, Garcia Richards said: “The position of the State Land Office under my direction is that all wildlife is sacred, and all wildlife play a vital role in our environment. This action does not restrict a rancher’s ability to humanely remove or kill an animal causing harm to agriculture or domestic pets on State Trust Lands. What we are addressing is the blood sport where participants kill dozens of animals without sound justification and play for cash and prizes.”
Other decision-makers have weighed in, too, as they move to outlaw killing contests on public lands in their states. Says former Montana State Senator Mike Phillips, a hunter and wildlife biologist: “Predator killing contests are abominations, an insult to the history of life on this planet. If you are going to remove wolves or coyotes because there are identifiable problems, okay, do it if it’s necessary, but be strategic. Predator killing contests turn that on its head. When is needless, thoughtless killing ever justified?”
In April, the campaign to end killing contests and shift the discussion around predator control received a major boost when more than a dozen Congressional representatives introduced legislation that would forbid such contests from taking place on federal public lands. Photo by Matt “Smooth Tooth” Knoth.
Non-lethal predator control methods are both more humane and more effective, says Camilla Fox of Project Coyote. Photo by Larry Lamsa.
Wildlife advocates hope that their campaign to end killing contests will also further a discussion around predator control policies more broadly. To that end, they are suggesting alternatives to indiscriminate hunting, alternatives that they say are both more humane and more effective. Project Coyote’s Fox, for example, has spearheaded an effort with California ranchers to identify and utilize alternative, nonlethal methods of conflict prevention such as specialized fencing and guard animals that protect livestock — including guardian dogs bred specifically for that purpose — as well as llamas and alpaca, which have long been used in South America to protect sheep.
“Implementing non-lethal management has entirely ceased what was once a predictable annual loss of lambs to coyotes, and greatly reduced all conflict the rest of the year,” says Gowan Batist, farm manager at Fortunate Farm in Caspar, California, who has worked with Project Coyote in recent years. “More importantly, it has helped our farm come to understand that the best asset we have as ranchers is a healthy and stable population of apex predators with an intact social structure and low stress on their health and well-being. Learning to live on our land as part of a diverse community that includes native carnivores is not only rewarding ecologically and personally, it is also safer and more profitable for our business.”
In April 2022, the campaign to end killing contests and shift the discussion around predator control received a major boost when more than a dozen Congressional representatives introduced legislation that would forbid such contests from taking place on federal public lands. Organizers are hopeful that when the public understands what is happening on land that they have a stake in, a groundswell of support will tip the balance.
“Ending contests on federally owned lands across the US would stop one of the most horrific practices the country has ever known, save thousands of native carnivores every year, and allow approximately 505 million acres of wild public lands to be the safe havens they should be, for humans and wildlife alike,” says Michelle Lute, Project Coyote’s national carnivore conservation manager. “Given the outsized impact native carnivores like wolves and coyotes have in creating healthy ecosystems, saving wildlife from these contests ultimately helps all Americans, from farmers to outdoor enthusiasts to future generations.”
At the end of the day, the sheer number of piled up carcasses across the country, is, when witnessed with eyes wide open, morally indefensible. As Aldo Leopold, father of the modern conservation movement wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching — even when doing the wrong thing is legal.”
This article is a companion piece to Comfort Theory’s documentary film, Wildlife Killing Contests.
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