One morning in the 1930s in Yellowstone National Park, biologist Adolph Murie watched a trotting coyote joyously toss a sprig of sagebrush in the air with her mouth, adroitly catch it, and repeat the act every few yards.
Murie was conducting a study to prove that coyotes were “the archpredator of our time.” But the biologist, whose work ultimately exonerated the animals, was more impressed by that sprig-tossing – proof of the joy a coyote took in being alive.
If we paid attention, we might share Murie’s fascination with this intelligent, playful creature. Instead, we kill roughly half a million of them annually in the United States.
No other animal in American history has suffered the kind of deliberate, casual persecution we have rained down on coyotes. For a long stretch of the 20th century, the federal government even sought their outright extermination.
Amid that coyote war, biologists Fred Knowlton and Guy Connolly published a study explaining how coyotes could withstand such scorched-earth warfare.
When left alone, coyote populations stabilize whereas, under persecution, colonizing mechanisms kick in. If an alpha female dies, beta females breed. They have greater pup survival. Pressured, packs break up and individuals colonize new areas.
Coyotes can withstand as much as a 70 percent yearly kill rate without suffering any decline in their total population. The only real effect a half-century of coyote killing was producing was coyote Manifest Destiny, as they spread out across North America.
Yet, in New Mexico, we still allow wildlife-killing contests, where “hunters” slaughter as many coyotes as possible to win cash, a belt buckle, or a gun.
More than 70 prominent conservation scientists have signed a statement condemning killing contests as ecologically indefensible, but organizers still promote them as a recreational pursuit and a way to attract young people to hunting. Their victims are not only coyotes, but the very image of rural America, tarnished by widespread photos of beefy, middle-aged men in camouflage, guns in hand and dead animals no one is ever going to eat piled in trucks.
Coyotes don’t need our help to survive as a species. But there is something perverse in society marking an ancient American species for death, setting it outside the bounds of even our wildlife protections and anti-cruelty laws.
No thoughtful human being should sacrifice for pleasure or a bet an animal like the one Murie observed in Yellowstone. Doing so is immoral – not in a religious sense, but in reference to morality’s origins, the evolution of a sense of fairness among members of a social species, which early on came to include a human recognition that other creatures enjoy being alive and that depriving them of life is a very serious matter.
In January, State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard banned the events for unprotected species on 9 million acres of State Trust Land, and the Albuquerque City Council issued a resolution in 2018 calling on legislators to take a stand.
This just-concluded session, bipartisan legislation was passed to outlaw coyote-killing contests statewide. It was sent to the governor, who can sign it into law.
Killing for mere pleasure an animal that for 5 million years has played an important role in America is shortsighted and ethically indefensible. As long as urbanites keep their pets inside at night and ranchers use common sense husbandry and proven non-lethal measures, coyotes pose no unique or overwhelming danger.
The truth is, we ought to appreciate them rather than target them in bloodsport.
Dan Flores is the author of numerous books, including the NYT best-seller “Coyote America.” He resides in Santa Fe. Camilla H. Fox is co-author of “Coyotes In Our Midst.”