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Know the West

Wyoming county tries to put itself on the map


By the time you read this, 200 avid sportsmen will have enjoyed a festive three-day "coyote shoot" in which the killers of the most and biggest animals take home $500 prizes.

Sponsored by the Campbell County Chamber of Commerce in northeastern Wyoming, the Feb. 3-5 shoot is not unique. Similar events go on throughout the West, with fanfare kept to a minimum to avoid adverse publicity. By contrast, organizers of the Campbell County Shoot have touted it as a tourist attraction, welcoming media attention and even the threat of protests by animal-rights groups.

"If they're willing to come to Gillette, spend money at motels, restaurants, and for gasoline, then we'll set up an organized demonstration area for them," chamber president Bret Taylor told the Casper Star-Tribune.

Another "coyote derby" was held in January in Ringling, Mont., about 50 miles north of Bozeman. Points were awarded for foxes, raccoons, badgers, skunks, porcupines and rabbits, as well as for coyotes, and derby organizer Craig Hereim told Predator Project founder Tom Skeele that the event "was more for fun than anything else."

Hereim added to a Billings Gazette reporter that the derby was needed to protect ranchers from devastating losses inflicted by these animals. Porcupines, for instance, are a threat because their quills sometimes end up in the tender muzzles of curious cows.

Skeele called this attitude an appalling carryover from the days when all predators were regarded as vermin.

"It's the old concept of good animals vs. bad animals," he says. Some coyote-shoot supporters were seen wearing T-shirts bearing the legend, "The only good coyote is a dead coyote."

Skeele said wildlife regulations in both states reinforce that view. It is legal to kill any number of coyotes at any time of year, without a license, often for bounties of up to $100 per coyote. Such policies, says Skeele, "are not in keeping with modern-day attitudes and knowledge of the ecology of the coyote."

Throughout the West, predator control continues to be justified on the basis of economic need. Ranchers in Campbell County attribute 60 percent of their losses to predators, mainly coyotes. The chamber's Taylor also said deer and antelope herds are suffering heavy losses from coyote predation. Non-resident hunters bring $4 million to the local economy each fall, and reduced big game numbers mean fewer licenses issued, and less revenue.

Biologist Mollie Matteson, who is studying coyotes in Yellowstone National Park, said coyote predation of livestock tends to be worse in areas where the coyotes' social structure has been disrupted by extensive control measures. In relatively undisturbed populations, she said, only a small proportion of the coyotes bother livestock. Anecdotal evidence suggests that killing large numbers of coyotes tends to encourage the survivors to prey on livestock, creating a spiral effect of escalating mayhem on both sides.

Furthermore, coyote populations often rebound after heavy losses through increased survival of pups. Taylor agreed the shoot will have little if any permanent effect on the local coyote population, but said he still wants to see their numbers reduced before spring lambing.

So far, the most vocal opposition to the shoot has come from the Humane Society of America and Connecticut-based Friends of Animals. Response from environmental groups in Wyoming has been subdued, largely, say several members of such groups, due to reluctance to be identified with animal-rights and anti-hunting activists.

Wyoming Wildlife Federation executive director June Rain says her organization views legitimate hunting as a viable management tool for many species of wildlife, including coyotes. But events such as the coyote shoot provide material for anti-hunting groups and could have repercussions on tourism throughout the state, she added.

"Hunters and anglers bring in so much money every year, that to offend the non-hunting public, to make happy the anti-hunting public, and to embarrass the ordinary hunting public, is less than a well-thought-out economic plan."

Taylor says the shoot will be a legitimate hunt. The 200 shooters will be assigned areas on 5,000 acres of private land. Snowmobiles and four-wheelers will be permitted, but poisons, aircraft and machine guns will not.

The writer free-lances in Laramie, Wyoming.