The coyote hunt
When does predator control become blood lust?
For the past seven years, the little Modoc County town of Adin, in Big Valley in far northeastern California, has hosted an annual coyote drive. It’s a popular event, with more than 200 men, women and youngsters participating in a group hunt whose goal is to kill as many coyotes as possible in two days. And every year it culminates in a grand showing of all of the dead animals, dozens of them, in what is commonly called the “coyote dump.”
The visual image of the coyote dump is striking: 60 to 70 dead and bloodied coyotes lying on the ground, with dozens of camouflage-wearing hunters milling around behind them. In past years, a photo was taken just across the street from Adin’s only grocery and outfitter store, in full public view, documenting the conclusion of the hunt. This year, the coyote dump was held privately, out of public view, at a location known only to the hunters and the event organizers.
That’s because earlier this year environmental groups—led by Project Coyote, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Animal Welfare Institute—representing 1 million Californians rallied public opinion in the weeks before the hunt by gathering signatures and writing countless letters to the various government agencies involved in an effort to monkey-wrench the coyote-killing competition.
The effort culminated with an appearance Feb. 6 before the state Fish and Game Commission, where the defenders of coyotes gave impassioned speeches against what they saw as relic behavior from frontier times. The commission balked at stopping the hunt but decided to explore the issue of regulation.
Several major newspapers and The Associated Press reported on the hearing.
I was pleased to see the publicity. I’ve been writing letters against the bloodletting for some time. From the moment I discovered the coyote hunt more than a year ago, I had planned on attending the event, using a stealth approach to get the story. Who would notice the pudgy Michael Moore look-alike? I’d wear a baseball cap, just like Michael.
Forgot to get the cap.
I did remember to bring my granddaughter, Kylie, who is 13 years old and would be my assistant on this venture. She would take photos and provide a buffer of sweetness to hordes of angry hunters who were not very happy that their hunt was no longer obscure.
I was hesitant to bring her, but she really wanted to come and help out. To learn civic duty and citizenship and all that.
Within minutes of our arrival at our motel in Bieber, about 10 miles down the road from Adin, the motel matron asked Kylie whether she was “one of those animal activists.”
The woman got it right. We were there for the coyotes. We were there to bear witness for the coyotes.
I understand that the hunters and ranchers of the area see nothing wrong with these contests. They see the hunt as a way to manage coyotes in the Big Valley area.
First District Assemblyman Brian Dahle, who has participated in the hunt in the past and owns a ranch close to Adin, told me by email: “The USDA National Ag Statistics Service attributes 72% of predation losses to coyotes, and estimates those losses would be two or three times greater without predator management practices.” By predator management practices, he means hunting.
The folks associated with the sponsors of the event, Adin Supply Company and the Pit River Rod and Gun Club, view the hunt as a way to teach responsible hunting to a new generation. It is a legal outdoor activity that fosters connection to the land and to each other. It is a celebration of a long-standing Western tradition.
No wonder they saw me as an interloper and meddler.
Kylie and I arrived in Adin in time for the Friday-night coyote hunt “check in.” I found the community center easily enough: just look for where all the pickup trucks are parked.
Seeing a sheriff’s deputy, I introduced myself as a freelance writer covering the coyote drive. The deputy was unimpressed. He said his name was Mark, but otherwise he wouldn’t talk to me. His face was stern, and he looked angry. Great! A pissed-off deputy, my protection as I embarked on talking to hundreds of heavily armed coyote hunters.
Mark did introduce me to his boss: Sgt. Ken Richardson. He was friendlier.
As we talked in the dark, outside the community center, two more armed men arrived. They were U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers. From talking to Project Coyote Director Camilla Fox, I was under the impression that the coyote hunt could not be conducted on BLM or Forest Service land due to the fact that the coyote hunt organizers didn’t get the required permits.
USFS Officer Nelson Dodds quickly disabused me of that notion. “There is no law against hunting on public land,” he stated, adding that the Forest Service would not interfere with the coyote hunt.
Inside the community center, I met Steve Gagnon. If it weren’t for the hat, he could masquerade as a finely polished human-resources director at a Fortune 500 company. Even his jeans looked pressed.
Gagnon is the owner of Adin Supply Company and the primary sponsor of the coyote hunt. Julie, his lovely wife, was standing next to him as I approached.
Gagnon said that as of 6 o’clock that night 72 teams had registered, with at least 200 hunters participating. This led to a discussion of the ethics of coyote hunting. Both Gagnon and his wife see it as necessary. “Would you let a coyote take your paycheck? Wouldn’t you kill it?” Julie Gagnon asked rhetorically.
When asked about recent studies that show indiscriminate killing of coyotes causes there to be more coyotes, not fewer, Gagnon laughed. “There’s lots of information out there that contradicts that,” he said. Curious about this, I asked for his email address so we could explore the data. He wouldn’t give his address, but he took mine, stating he would send along plenty of scientific information to back up the merits of mass coyote slayings.
He never contacted me.
You can kill as many coyotes as you want in California at any time, no excuse needed. They are considered “varmints,” and state law doesn’t protect “non-game” animals. Predator advocates have wanted this changed for years.
Studies of coyotes and their behavior have determined that the animals do best when left alone. As is the case with wolves, only the alphas of the pack reproduce. When an alpha is killed, the subordinate males obtain access to and breed with the females, producing more litters.
Coyotes also breed according to population pressure: Fewer coyotes means larger litters. Coyotes usually have pups at age 2; kill the alphas, and they breed at age 1, in what is called: “compensatory breeding.”
It is impossible to manage coyotes by killing them. Coyotes have been persecuted for hundreds of years—trapped, poisoned, snared, shot on sight from helicopters and airplanes by government agencies. This pressure has led to the dispersal of coyotes to 49 states (they have yet to swim to Hawaii); 150 years ago there were no coyotes east of the Mississippi.
In California, we stopped killing mountain lions in the early 1990s. Mountain lions are still killed when they present a threat to people or they feast on domestic critters. A similar approach could be taken with coyotes. Let them be predators again. Let them self-regulate, which is the best way to control the population.
Many ranchers agree with that approach. Coyote predation isn’t a problem with proper animal husbandry, they say. The trick is to discover the art of being a shepherd. And there are tactics for protecting flocks and herds: shed lambing, better fencing, electric fences, hazing of coyotes, guard animals (such as dogs, llamas and burros), firecrackers, motion-sensitive noisemakers and lights, using barns at night and for birthing, and raising domestic livestock breeds that have a bit of fight left in them.
Another approach is to change our attitudes about the coyote and acknowledge the important role the animal plays in the ecosystem. Coyotes feed mostly on rodents, and in doing so keep in check the population of the animals most responsible for transmitting such deadly diseases as hantavirus and bubonic plague. Last summer, nine people contracted hantavirus in Yosemite National Park; three of them died.
When Kylie and I returned to our motel room, we discovered that the WiFi no longer worked. It had worked when we first arrived, so apparently it had been turned off. Earlier, a sympathetic townsperson had reported a rumor that every motel would shut off the Internet so journalists could not file their stories.
The WiFi was turned off for the duration of our stay.
Adin resembled an armed camp on Saturday morning. Although the hunters all had rifles, they weren’t at all threatening to me. The tight-lipped armed law-enforcement personnel, in their big four-wheel drives in which they sometimes shadowed my little Yaris, were another matter. There were game warden trucks, three sheriff’s SUVs and at least one Forest Service ranger’s truck. All of them were here in support of the hunt, keeping a lookout for critics like me.
I asked one warden, who refused to give his name, where the coyote dump would be held. The warden denied that he, or any warden, knew where the organizers would hold it.
I had noticed that the admonition “Report Fish and Wildlife Crimes” was displayed on the back of his government truck. I asked him if it was a crime to dump 50 to 60 coyote carcasses in one place. “No” he replied. I asked him if it was a health hazard. “No,” he said again.
The warden did give me a number at Fish and Wildlife of the person handling the hunt. When I called, the office was closed for the weekend.
This closed-mouth collusion between the hunters and the law enforcement personnel is annoying. The officers’ anger is palpable. I know anger when I see it: I’ve been a psychiatric nurse for 20 years and am well trained in noticing the cues of a person who is very upset. The clenched fists, the tightened muscles in the face, the lack of eye contact, the lack of open and friendly non-verbal features. And not a pleasant word from any of them. They could use a little Disneyland training in customer service.
Twenty-four hours in Modoc County and I haven’t seen any coyotes, living or dead. We’ve peeked into countless pickup beds. Nothing. This hunt has gone underground. Are they ashamed of themselves?
I asked Kylie what she thought of coyote-killing contests. As usual, she put it perfectly, in typical Kylie fashion:
“I think that if you kill a coyote that is in the process of trying to kill one of your animals, that’s a little bit OK. But if you’re killing coyotes just for fun and prizes? Then it’s not at all OK.”
Modoc County, where the Second Amendment trumps the First Amendment—and the sheriff gets to decide what is constitutional.
On the day before I arrived in Adin, the Modoc County Record featured a guest editorial by Sheriff Mike Poindexter. In the piece he discussed at length his decision to protect the hunters’ right to hunt on public lands. Should a federal agent interfere with a hunter on public land, he advised hunters to “stand your ground” and call the county deputies.
Stand their ground, eh? What sort of message does that send to the hunters and sheriff’s deputies? Doesn’t that just encourage them in their bravado and bluster toward people like me? And what about the blatant disregard of federal laws?
All weekend I had an icy relationship with those who were ostensibly there to protect the public. On Friday night I asked Sgt. Richardson if law enforcement would be able to ensure my safety while covering the hunt. “No,” he said.
When I walked into the one restaurant in town and tried to engage six law enforcement personnel from three separate agencies in friendly conversation, one officer said: “We don’t talk to the press.” They all promptly gathered up their food and left.
On Sunday, the last day of the hunt, Kylie and I visited a local couple opposed to the hunt who offered their home as a safe haven to us. The couple told me that the final coyote dump would be on private land owned by Buck Parks, brother-in-law to Steve Gagnon. Parks is also the president of the Pit River Rod and Gun Club.
The couple’s house is relatively close to the only store in town, the aforementioned Adin Supply Company. Kylie had been in adult company for 48 hours straight and craved a break. She asked if she could walk to the store and get a soda. I said yes, adding, “Take your camera in case you can get a photo of any dead coyotes.”
Before she even got to the store, she was met by Sgt. Richardson, who warned her that if she walked any farther, she would be arrested. He also gave her a message to me that if I attempted to set foot on store property, I would be arrested and brought straight to jail. No warning, just off to jail I go.
Angered that a sheriff’s deputy would threaten to arrest a 13-year-old girl who wanted only to buy a soda, I had no one to call. Who do you call when it’s the police who are threatening you?
Since I would be arrested if I attempted to go to the store to interview hunters or gather information, there was only one thing left to do: attempt to get into the coyote dump.
The coyote dump is when the winners are determined and prizes awarded. Two points are given for each dead pregnant female coyote and one point for others. In the prior six contests, the coyote dump had been held in the middle of town and been open to the public. This year the organizers chose to hide this event on private property.
I gathered up two adult witnesses (who shall remain nameless), got in their truck, and laden with cameras drove toward the Parks ranch just a few miles outside of town. We drove past the driveway, where a man was standing, guarding the gate. On the side of a hill, a couple hundred yards away, we could see numerous vehicles. Earlier I had watched several pickup trucks enter the compound. “Guide Service” was emblazoned on the side of one of the trucks.
What to do? We could easily hike to a hillside with our high-powered camera lens and snap some photos. But this was out of the question. Too dangerous. We would be trespassing; about 200 armed hunters would have justification to shoot all three of us.
Instead, we pulled up to the gate. I got out of the truck and approached the guard.
“Hi, I’m Allan Stellar, a freelance writer here for the Chico News & Review. May I enter to attend the coyote dump?”
“No.” The gatekeeper identified himself as Buck Parks, the owner of the land and president of the Pit River Rod and Gun Club. I asked him how many coyotes had been killed. “I don’t know.” I asked if the results of the hunt would be posted. “No.”
Nothing left to do but leave. “Thanks for being peaceful,” Buck said. What did he expect?
Time to leave Modoc County. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
On Monday morning, after the hunt, my wife received a call from Capt. Rick Banko, the Department of Fish and Wildlife officer in charge of the event. Joni had been making calls all weekend trying to report the coyote hunt as a crime and wishing to talk to someone in charge. Capt. Banko was that man.
“In my opinion, coyotes are really not a problem up there,” Banko said, referring to Lassen and Modoc counties. “We get a few complaints about coyotes, but it is a sparsely populated region. Besides, the more coyotes are killed, the more they breed, so this event is not controlling the coyote population.”
What do you know? The lead game warden for the area doesn’t believe the hunt is necessary, or even helpful.
“The boundaries of the coyote drive are not well defined,” Banko continued. “I don’t know for a fact if hunters go into Nevada or Oregon. But some likely do.”
There is a macabre fascination with photos from coyote dumps. Search the Internet, and you can find gruesome photos from past years.
If the promoters of this hunt have learned anything, it is that photos of wild animals killed in an indiscriminate fashion, their corpses laid out like dominoes—these sorts of photos garner attention.
It was these disturbing photos that first got my attention. Without the photos, I doubt this hunt would have become a statewide issue.
There will be no photos from this year’s hunt. No dead coyotes hung from trees. No corpses laid out with beaming hunters next to them. No public father-and-son pics with dead coyotes propped up in the pickup beds. This year it was a private affair held away from the public eye.
Before traveling to Adin, I was contacted by The Associated Press. What did they want? Photos of dead coyotes. Dead coyote porn. Is this story that much less interesting without titillating photos of dead animals? Probably.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe our common sense of compassion is piqued by such photos. Maybe when we look at them, the horror of them, the killing-for-fun aspect of them, well, maybe that gets us to ask that one important question: “Is there another way?”