Last week, New Mexico Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard signed an executive order banning coyote-killing contests on 9 million acres of state land. The order makes it illegal to organize, sponsor or participate in a killing contest of unprotected species, such as coyotes, on state land. It does not outlaw the killing of coyotes by hunters or ranchers who are protecting their livestock.
According to the Albuquerque Journal, "Wildlife advocates say 20 to 30 coyote-killing derbies are typically organized across New Mexico every year. Such contests often award prize money for the most coyotes killed or the biggest coyote killed. Participants use calling devices to lure coyotes into range."
Many ranchers believe the contests are a legitimate tool for controlling the populations of coyotes, which may kill their livestock. However, this notion goes against scientific research about coyote ecology. In fact, ending the contests could actually help keep their sheep, cattle and other animals.
Coyotes are highly adaptable animals and can even adapt to predation pressures by having higher reproduction rates. When people shoot coyotes indiscriminately and in large numbers, the overall effect is more coyotes.
According to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies:
Robert Crabtree, who did the seminal work on coyote biology in central Washington and Yellowstone National Park, reports that most “control” takes out the non-offending coyotes, the ones that are not bothering livestock.
Crabtree notes that to really control coyotes it’s necessary to remove at least 70 percent of a population, something he says “rarely, if ever” happens. Moreover, virtually all coyote “control” results in more, not fewer, coyotes. Crabtree reports that where coyotes are left alone, the average litter size at birth is five or six, but because of all the competition in summer only 1.5 to 2.5 pups survive. Where coyotes are killed by humans (never resulting in a population reduction approaching 70 percent), less competition results in significantly higher survival.
Further, with fewer adult coyotes providing for the pack, remaining coyotes that are desperate for food may leave off hunting their usual prey of rodents and turn to larger, easier prey — like livestock. The contests, which encourage killing any and all coyotes, effectively create the very problems the contests are purported to prevent.
The contests also could be creating new problems for ranchers. A three-year study in western Texas published in 1992 showed that "coyote removal appeared to cause a 320 percent increase in jackrabbit density and suggested that altered jackrabbit behavior due to a lack of coyote predation risk could increase competition with livestock for available forage."
A 1995 analysis of coyote control studies by University of Nebraska concluded, "[I]f the coyote removal is practiced year-round, microherbivore populations may potentially increase; increased competition for forage with livestock may result. Consequently, a reduced stocking rate then may be required to offset competition, which may negate the number of livestock saved from predation."
In other words, ranchers may have fewer coyotes but more herbivores on their land, and thus be put at the same disadvantage.
As KQED reports:
Though any coyote has the potential to kill livestock, studies show many don’t. That’s because it’s a learned behavior. So if a coyote that doesn’t have a taste for sheep is indiscriminately killed, you may have removed your best protection against livestock-eating coyotes because your rodent-loving coyote can no longer defend his territory against other predators.
Nationwide, coyote-killing contests are condemned by many hunters and wildlife advocates as cruel and unethical. The New Mexico ban — and similar bans and proposed bans in other states — reflects both a scientific and a humane mindset in balancing the needs of humans and wildlife.
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