Last week, Vermont became the second state in the nation to ban coyote-killing contests, following California.
Gov. Phil Scott allowed the bill to become law without his signature. He declined to sign it, saying the competition ban was confusing and unnecessary since coyote hunting remains legal, but he didn’t veto it either, because other parts of the bill made “significant improvements to fish and wildlife law.”
“This bill sends a mixed signal to hunters, farmers and landowners that hunting coyotes is a bad thing when, in fact, that activity is likely a major reason coyotes remain wild and wary of people, which keeps human-coyote conflicts to a minimum,” Scott wrote in a letter to the House.
A Stowe organization, which disagrees with Scott’s opinion, led the charge to ban coyote-killing contests, testifying in the name of humane hunting practices.
Coyote killing contests are “thrill killing. The participants have no intent on using the animals in any shape or form,” which defeats the purpose of hunting, said Brenna Galdenzi, co-founder of Stowe nonprofit Protect Our Wildlife.
Members of Protect Our Wildlife mobilized at the start of the legislative session to gather support from hunters, anglers, farmers and animal activists, and bring them together to speak with legislators throughout the state about the inhumanity of the contests.
The organization’s effort had been effectively shut down in the previous year, though, protests by the group closed two coyote killing contests — one in Bristol and a statewide competition based in Londonderry.
Galdenzi emphasized that she isn’t against hunting, but is against senseless killing.
“If you’re going to eat meat — I don’t — but what’s more moral than eating what you’ve killed yourself?” she said. “We were not and are not going after hunting, but this is different than killing a deer.”
According to Galdenzi, many coyote-killing contestants come back with piles of dead coyotes stacked on top of their hunting-dog cages, and after the contest is over, the carcasses — often with lead shot in them — are discarded in the woods for scavengers and raptors to eat.
Louis Porter, commissioner of Vermont Fish & Wildlife, agrees that coyote-killing contests offering rewards for the largest, smallest, ugliest and most coyotes can make hunters look bad.
However, “we have to be careful making changes in a legal act just because we don’t like something,” Porter said.
There is still an open season on coyotes, dating back to the 1940s after wolves were eradicated from Vermont and the more adaptable coyotes moved in, breeding with wolves in Canada along the way.
Termed coydogs, the animals are larger and heavier than their Western counterparts, and have historically been considered vermin, according to a January report by the Fish and Wildlife Department.
Coyotes are opportunists, and will feed on everything from insects and berries to snowshoe hare, deer and livestock.
In the last 10 years, Vermont has recorded 69 incidents in which coyotes went after livestock, killing 121 animals, including cows, sheep and turkeys.
The actual number is probably much higher, as fewer and fewer farmers report coyote activity. They’re handling the situations on their own, says the fish and wildlife report.
Some coyote hunters also claim that coyotes are hurting the state’s deer population.
“It’s too bad that Vermont is considering banning the coyote killing (contests), because Vermont is already overpopulated with them. People will see less deer,” said Germain Houle, a hunter from Morrisville.
Research in New Hampshire suggests it would take eight deer, 105 snowshoe hare, or 4,800 mice to meet the annual energy requirements of one coyote.
“Although coyotes may have some influence on these populations at the local scale, the availability of high-quality habitat certainly has a much greater overall bearing on prey populations,” the fish and wildlife report said.
Some Western studies claim that coyotes, when hunted, increase their breeding to replace their population, but Porter says that may not be accurate, because the Western and Eastern species, and hunting practices, are so different.
“I don’t want to put too much sway in the Western studies, because those coyotes experience an even higher level of hunting pressure. They hunt from the air, use poison. … In order to become an issue here, up to 70 percent of the state’s coyote population would have to be killed in a given year,” Porter said.
Galdenzi and Porter agree, though, that coyotes, no matter which breed, are territorial, and “a coyote you know is better than one you don’t,” Galdenzi said.
Porter recommends that if farmers find a pack nearby that isn’t causing harm, it’s best to keep the animals around, because they protect their territory and will block other coyotes from coming onto the farm.
Porter didn’t fight to ban coyote-killing contests, because he says the law is unnecessary, especially from a biological view.
“Coyote-killing contests are also rare in Vermont,” Porter said. “I don’t support them, nor does the department underwrite or sponsor them in any way, as some states do.”
Galdenzi would eventually like to see a closed season on coyotes, limiting coyote killing to the period around the end of the year when the animals’ fur is viable to sell.
She’d also like to see a ban on leg-hold trapping in the state.
Says Porter: “There are a few states that have closed seasons, but we don’t see a need from a population standpoint. Those who believe it will improve deer herds probably aren’t right, and those who believe it will have an effect on the coyote population probably aren’t right, either. Coyotes are resilient.”
Thirty-nine states have an open coyote season, six have a minimal closed season, four states established a hunting season, and 25 have regulated trapping seasons.
The state estimates there are, on average, 7,500 coyotes in Vermont, but that the population varies from as many as 9,000 in the spring during pup rearing to 6,000 in the winter.
The ban on coyote-killing contests takes effect next Jan. 1. The possibility of a prison sentence for organizing or participating in coyote-killing contests was replaced by a fine of $400 to $1,000 for first-time offenders. Second-time offenders would face fines of $2,000 to $4,000.
Coyote tournament participants would lose their hunting licenses for at least a year, depending on whether there had been previous wildlife offenses; organizers of tournaments would face longer license suspensions.
The trolls respond
After celebrating the ban on coyote-killing contests on social media, Galdenzi and Protect Our Wildlife were trolled by critics who lashed out at anyone who commented in favor of the ban.
One Stowe woman simply congratulated Galdenzi for her organization’s victory — and one reply was outrageous. It said the woman and her family should be “raped and strung up” on hooks for supporting the law.
Similar comments followed, and Galdenzi spent hours deleting them from Protect Our Wildlife’s Facebook page, along with photos of coyotes and pups that had been killed.