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Is it Time to End Coyote Hunting in California?

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Coyote in the Marin Headlands | Photo: Matt Knoth/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The news broke New Years' week that the female wolf dubbed "Echo," the first gray wolf known to have returned to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in more than 70 years, may have been shot and killed by a hunter near Beaver, Utah, who mistook the wolf for a coyote.

I say "may have been shot" because, at least at this writing, there's a chance that DNA testing will reveal that a wolf other than Echo fell to the coyote hunter's bullets. Wolves are slowly dispersing throughout parts of the west from which they've been absent for decades, and it's not impossible that another female wolf with a radio collar had headed south from Wyoming at about the same time as Echo did.

Still, the dead wolf is said to substantially resemble photos tourists snapped of Echo on the North Rim in November. Odds are good that it's her. And it almost doesn't matter. What does matter is that the incident points up a problem that wolf advocates have been warning against for years: the possibility that wolves will be shot by hunters who mistake them for coyotes. And that problem can be most logically addressed by ending recreational coyote hunting.

It's not just Rocky Mountain gray wolves that run the risk of being shot as "coyotes." In January 2013, a highly endangered Mexican wolf, one of fewer than 100 roaming the southwest after an expensive reintroduction program, was killed in southwestern New Mexico by an employee of the controversial federal agency Wildlife Services who mistook the animal for a coyote.

Gray wolves have also been shot by mistake in Missouri in 2012, in Illinois (in at least two separate incidents) in 2011, and last May in Iowa, when a hunter killed the first wolf known to have roamed Iowa in decades.Now it's worth keeping in mind that "I thought it was a coyote" is reputed to be an excuse used by a number of gunmen who fully intended to kill wolves. As veteran wildlife writer Ralph Maughan wrote about last week's wolf killing, claiming ignorance of the differences between coyotes and wolves can save wolf-killers serious punishment.

The traditional excuse for shooting the wolf was given. The shooter said he thought it was a coyote. This usually means a fine of $500 or less if there is any prosecution at all because there will be no federal prosecution due to the U.S. Justice Department's "McKittrick Policy." This policy is 16 years old. The Justice Department refuses to go to court against those persons who kill endangered wildlife unless it can be proved that they knew they were targeting a protected animal.

And Maughan has a point. If you know anything at all about both gray wolves and coyotes, confusing the two species seems unlikely in the extreme. Gray wolves, which despite recent federal efforts to strip them of protection are still listed as Endangered in most of the 48 contiguous United States, average about 80 pounds in the lower 48 but can be as big as 120 pounds. Wolves are generally about 2.5 feet tall and five to six feet from snout to tail. Meanwhile, coyotes generally top out at about 45 pounds, 1.5 feet in height and 3-4 feet in nose to tail length.

Here's a visual aid. This is a gray wolf, Echo, who is feared to be the victim of that Utah hunter's mistake:

This is a wolf | Photo courtesy Center for Biological Diversity


And here is a coyote in Utah:

This is a coyote | Photo: Bryant Olson/Flickr/Creative Commons License


There are other differences between wolves and coyotes that jump out at the casual observer. Wolves' ears tend to be rounded at the tips, while coyotes' are pointier. Coyote muzzles are sharper than wolves'. It's understandable that a person familiar with both species would reach the conclusion that much of the time, the possibility of actual mistaken identity leading to a wolf death is slim.

Unless, of course, the errant hunter isn't following widely accepted hunting and firearm safety rules regarding making sure you know what you're shooting at. Which would explain the other phenomenon you find when you search the internet on the phrase "thought it was a coyote," namely news stories about the unfortunate deaths of innocent German shepherds or huskies or, in one especially ridiculous case in Michigan a year ago, a purebred Weimaraner wearing an orange reflective vest and collar when it was shot.

The practice of "spotlighting," or shining a bright light into the dark wilds while coyote hunting and then shooting at any pair of eyes that glow and seem right, heightens the danger to wolves. Spotlighting coyotes proved such a threat to North Carolina's red wolf population, with at least five wolves killed by coyote hunters, that a state judge put a temporary stop to the practice there in 2012.

Here's the thing: it really doesn't matter all that much whether the "thought it was a coyote" line is sincere or a ruse. Both could be corrected by ending what is, across the west, essentially unregulated hunting of coyotes. If the people who use the line are sincere, a ban would mean they wouldn't be out there hunting coyotes. And if it's a ruse, the absence of an easy legal "out" for killing a wolf might just keep some people from pulling that trigger.

There's precedent of sorts. The U.S. Endangered Species Act provides for protecting animals that don't belong to endangered species, but which resemble endangered species closely enough that it's hard for either law enforcement or the public at large to distinguish between them. Examples of such animals given protection due to what the Endangered Species Act calls "similarity of appearance" include the American alligator, which was once listed as Endangered on its own. The alligator has recovered enough that it's not longer in danger throughout its range, but it's still on the list of Threatened Species due to its similarity to the American crocodile, which is still Threatened in Florida and Endangered everywhere else.

The very common American black bear is also listed as Threatened in Louisiana, and parts of Mississippi and Texas, due to its similarity to the Threatened Louisiana black bear.

Coyotes are far from threatened, but it increasingly seems clear that people hunting them for sport pose a serious threat to the wolf, a protected species struggling to recover.

That's part of the reason wildlife advocates urged the California Fish and Game Commission to ban coyote-killing contests that offered cash prizes. California's best-known such contest, held each February in Modoc County, overlapped with territory being used by the wolf OR-7, whose return to California over the last few years made headlines. That raised the specter of a coyote hunter gunning down the first wild wolf to visit California since 1924.

The California Fish and Game Commission banned such contests in December. We've heard chatter about a coyote-hunting event in Modoc County planned for February 7 and 8, in which participants will fan out over the countryside and compete to see who can kill the most coyotes, with the event kept strictly legal by merely not offering cash prizes.

If OR-7 and his new family happen to wander within the unspecified boundaries of the no-prizes Modoc County contest, the results could be every bit as tragic as those last week in Utah.

Even without the wolves, there's plenty of reason to end the practice of shooting coyotes for sport. Fans of coyote hunting claim that their sport keeps predator levels down, aiding other wildlife and keeping ranchers in business. But science shows the opposite: disrupting the coyotes' tight family unit by shooting them means more pups with less experience trying to eat chickens and pet cats instead of rabbits and field mice.

Advocates of hunting coyotes even claim their sport boosts public safety, despite the fact that the vast majority of unpleasant interactions between humans and coyotes occur in crowded urban and suburban settings where hunting isn't allowed anyway. Outside the cities? I'm writing this with just half a mile of open desert between my desk and almost 800,000 acres of hunting-free coyote sanctuary. It's a rare night when I don't hear a whole lot of coyote song within a few hundred yards of my home. And because my neighbors and I take minimal, sensible precautions like feeding our pets inside, so-called "problem coyotes" are essentially nonexistent.

A ban on recreational coyote hunting wouldn't keep ranchers from targeting individual problem coyotes, nor would it prevent animal control officers in California's cities from doing the same. In fact, as programs in Marin County have shown, non-lethal coyote control methods can actually protect livestock more effectively and more cheaply than shooting the predators.

And with a new Northern California wolf population a near certainty, that just makes one more reason to end the practice. Even if the federal government succeeds in its attempt to remove the gray wolf from the federal Endangered Species List, the California Fish and Game Commission listed the wolf on the state's own endangered list.

Sport coyote hunting does nothing to promote public safety. It's an inefficient and even counterproductive approach to livestock losses. And the death last week of the wolf in Utah serves as a reminder that the pastime carries with it unacceptable collateral damage.

In short, there's no good reason to allow recreational coyote hunting in California, and quite a few reasons to end it -- including protecting a species we just went to a lot of trouble to declare endangered in the state.

California should ban sport hunting of coyotes, and the sooner we do it, the safer those wolves on the northern border of our state will be.

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