For the eighth consecutive year, a general store in the far north part of the state is sponsoring a contest that awards prizes for hunters who shoot the most coyotes. This year's contest is a little different, though: organizers are trying to keep opponents from finding out about it.
The annual Big Valley Coyote Drive, centered in Adin, CA, is scheduled for February 7-9. To enter, hunters must pay a $50 registration fee that covers a team of two and includes a Saturday dinner and a T-shirt. They then fan out across several Northern California counties -- and possibly into Oregon and Nevada -- to kill as many coyotes as they can by the morning of the 9th.
If the rules and regulations for the Drive resemble previous years, prizes will be given to the teams that bring the largest haul of dead coyotes back to Adin, with special prizes awarded to young hunters. But confirming those details about the 2014 Drive is difficult, because its organizers have clamped down hard on publicity.
Adin Supply Company, an area general store that's the lead organizer of the Coyote Drive with the Pit River Rod and Gun Club, has apparently gone so far as to let its domain name registration lapse: the website had formerly been the company's main venue for distributing drive guidelines and registration forms. Instead, the organizers are attempting to spread the word of the hunt among hunters' communities on Facebook and in other social media.
Participants in the Drive are bound by state hunting laws regulating how and when animals can be shot, which in the case of coyotes don't amount to much. Anyone with a valid hunting license can pretty much shoot as many coyotes as they want at any time of year in California, provided they're in an area where they're allowed to discharge firearms. Coyotes are one of the least-protected wild animal species in California, and sympathetic write-ups of previous years' Drives have made references to "eradicating coyotes from Northern California."
When I attempted to talk to Adin Supply Wednesday morning to confirm details of the Drive, the woman who answered the store's phone asked whether I was "pro or anti." When I identified myself as a reporter and mentioned my relationship with KCET, she said "okay, thank you" and hung up.
Our local sources inform us that flyers with Drive information and guidelines have been posted in public places in the Alturas area. That's fine for getting the word out to locals, but in past years hunters have participated from across Northern California and Adin Supply owner Steve Gagnon has told reporters in the past that the contest is an important driver of sales during the off-season.
So why the clampdown on public information? That's likely due to attempts by groups like Project Coyote and the Center for Biological Diversity to intervene with the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and Fish and Game Commission to stop the hunt, citing new state mandates to use real science to manage wildlife in the state.
In 2012, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 2402, which requires wildlife policy in the state be set according to "ecosystem-based management informed by credible science in all resource management decisions." The law defines "ecosystem-based management" as "an environmental management approach relying on credible science... that recognizes the full array of interactions within an ecosystem, including humans, rather than considering single issues, species, or ecosystem services in isolation."
Which would seem on the face of it to work against managing complex predator-prey-livestock interactions by killing alll the coyotes in sight. Truth be told, there's not much science in favor of controlling coyote populations by sending teams of hunters across hundreds of square miles of landscape with incentives to kill all coyotes on sight. In fact, the research indicates pretty strongly that indiscriminate killing of coyotes results in an increase in coyote numbers by breaking up family groups in which only the lead parents can breed.
Hunt advocates maintain that such culls are necessary to protect livestock such as lambs, calves, and pets. But disrupting the predators' pack structure by shooting them seems to increase the likelihood of such depredations. Breaking up family groups and freeing younger dogs to breed means greater pressure on livestock in the long run, and shooting older, experienced coyotes prevents them from training their young to avoid seemingly easy pickings on the ranch.
This isn't the first year locals have clamped down on outside information about the hunt. Northern California writer Allan Stellar reported that local motel owners shut off their WiFi for the duration of the 2013 Drive in an apparent attempt to keep reporters from filing stories. And as a result of negative publicity, last year's collection site for hunters' coyote haul was held on private land closed to the public. Previous years' "coyote dumps" -- the organizers' term -- were held out in from of Adin Supply.
In his story, Stellar quotes the area's chief CDFW officer on the justification, or lack thereof, for the Drive:
"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."
It's worth noting that this isn't the only such event in California. One group of coyote hunters in Kern County attempts to hold a monthly coyote-killing contest near Taft which they organize through a Facebook page, and the California Hunting Facebook Page alerted its followers that another such contest is scheduled for February 14 in the Sierra foothills community of Prather.
This is clearly an issue that won't be going away anytime soon, and we'll be following up as more information becomes available.