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How killing wildlife in the United States became a game

Gun News


LIBERTY, NEW YORKHunkered down in a camouflaged hut at dawn, Timothy Kautz trains his rifle on a deer carcass laid as bait in a snow-covered valley abutted by swamp and forest. Glancing at his cell phone, he reviews a recent remote camera video showing a grayish brown canine with pointy ears, a long, narrow muzzle, and a bushy tail snatching some venison.

So far this February morning, the coyote is a no-show.

“Maybe he’s seen too many of his friends shot here,” Kautz says, warming his hands by a portable gas space heater as fluffy snowflakes swirl outside the window. “He was probably sitting nearby when I got one of his buddies.”

A deputy in the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office in New York’s Catskill Mountains, Kautz, 42, is participating in an annual three-day weekend tournament in which nearly 400 hunters are vying to win a $2,000 grand prize for killing the biggest coyote.

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The United States is the only country in the world where wild animals are killed by the tens of thousands strictly for prizes and entertainment, according to the Humane Society of the United States. It estimates that before the coronavirus pandemic, there were more than 400 contests annually, accounting for an estimated 60,000 dead animals each year. Texas alone holds at least 60 contests annually. Many competitions offer an array of wildlife to shoot, from raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, and groundhogs to foxes, bobcats, stingrays, and crows. Coyotes, widely considered a nuisance animal across the country, are the most popular target. (Some states hold contents intended to reduce invasive wildlife, such as Burmese pythons in Florida, feral hogs in Texas, and nutria in Louisiana.)

The contests are increasingly controversial, criticized as blood sport.  So far, eight states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Vermont, and Washington—have outlawed the contests under pressure from conservation and animal welfare groups. Calls for a national ban got louder after a 2020 undercover investigation by the Humane Society revealed the emergence of killing tournaments through members-only Facebook groups, raising questions about whether online contests violate state wildlife and gambling laws. In early April, Congressman Stephen Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee, and 15 co-sponsors introduced a bill to ban contests on all public lands.

In past years, award-winning coyotes at the contest in the Catskills, co-hosted by the Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs of Sullivan County and the White Sulphur Springs Volunteer Fire Department, weighed in at around 50 pounds. One of the first two coyotes Kautz shot this year registered 48.65 pounds. “It’s a big dog,” he says, though previous contests have taught him to temper his enthusiasm. “I always get beat by a few ounces. I hope I don’t get beat this year.”

If Kautz doesn’t win the grand prize, he could come away with $500 for second place or $250 for third. To be eligible, hunters must pay $35 to enter the contest, which covers the cost of a Sunday dinner banquet and a five-dollar raffle ticket. In addition to paying for prizes, contest proceeds fund outdoor programs for families and environmental conservation. Aside from the biggest awards, hunters compete for the day’s heaviest kill ($200), and there are separate prizes ($100 each) for women and children to win. For each qualifying coyote, hunters receive $80. Awards and raffle prizes are distributed at the banquet. The raffle prizes include firearms, ammunition, and high-tech calling devices that lure animals to hunters’ waiting guns. Kautz already has a plan for what he’ll do with the prize money if he wins.

The rules of the Catskills contest stipulate that coyotes must be killed within the designated area that includes New York State, five counties in Pennsylvania, and one county in New Jersey. To validate that the animals were freshly killed, their body temperature must be between 68 and 100 degrees. Contestants are expected to follow state hunting laws, which liberally allow hunters to use bait, high-powered rifles, thermal imaging nightscopes, electronic calling devices, and tracking with hounds. 

In the span of American history, coyotes are recent newcomers to the East. During the early 1800s, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark encountered coyotes only west of the Mississippi, where they described a “prairie wolf” about the size of a gray fox with a bushy tail and wolflike head and ears. Since then, coyotes have gradually moved east to fill the niche of vanishing wolves and mountain lions. Today, eastern coyotes—larger than their western ancestors because they interbred with wolves and domestic dogs—are cozy among humans, even thriving in some of the country’s biggest cities and suburbs, including New York and Chicago.

The coyote competitions may have started with the idea that exterminating them would help farmers and ranchers, but wildlife advocates say there are more humane ways to protect livestock. What’s more, they say the accessibility of high-tech hunting equipment, including night vision and high-powered firearms, has transformed the events into gratuitous slaughter.

“Wildlife-killing contests serve no legitimate purpose,” says Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the U.S. “Coyotes, foxes, and bobcats—animals essential to the health of our ecosystem—have long been persecuted because of misconceptions used as an excuse to kill them for fun and bragging rights. This cannot be allowed in a civilized society where our wildlife serve a critical environmental role.”

Weighing in 

An ice storm followed by a full day of rain brings a slow start to this year’s Sullivan County hunt compared with the previous one, in February 2020, when participants killed a record 118 coyotes. The event begins officially at 12 a.m. on Friday, and by noon on Saturday, the pace is stepping up. Hunters in pickup trucks arrive with coyote carcasses wrapped in plastic and stuffed in insulated coolers to keep them from freezing in the subzero temperatures outside. There’s a line of dead coyotes—tongues dragging, fur stained with blood—on the ground at the weigh-in station behind the firehouse, where the rank smell of death drifts across the parking lot.

John Van Etten, the sportsmen’s federation president, dressed in an NRA camouflage baseball hat, Carhartt overalls, a flannel shirt, and rubber boots, mans the weigh-in. He jabs the coyotes in the gut with a meat thermometer to record their temperature, then attaches chains to the animals’ legs and hooks them onto a scale. As they hang, spinning in midair, blood trickles onto the snow. After the weight is recorded, Van Etten clips a toenail from a back paw—to make sure no one gets away with entering the same coyote twice. “The things people will do when there’s money involved,” he says dolefully. 

Bill Miller, 61, dressed in camo coveralls, unloads three coyotes from his vehicle. He and his son, Kyle, 26, have been entering the contest for at least 10 years. “It’s one of the most exciting hunts going,” he says, adding he’s pleased that killing coyotes keeps Kyle from mischief. “These young guys aren’t out drinking, doing drugs, and getting in trouble,” he says. “They’re out hunting.” 

“It’s a good adrenaline rush too,” Kyle adds.

Many of the hunters at the weigh-in talk about liking the challenge of killing such wily animals. “These guys are smart,” Kautz tells me. “If you trick one of them, you trick one of the best out there.” His technique for luring coyotes is baiting them at his hunting blind for about a month leading up to the contest.

Jeremy Harvey, 45, is disappointed that the coyote he’s brought from Burlington Flats, two hours away, is more than six pounds shy of Kautz’s front-runner. Harvey prefers hunting coyotes with hounds. He goes out at first light to locate a coyote track, then unleashes his dogs, Jett and Ace, whose special GPS collars allow him to track them using a handheld device. “It’s so much fun,” he says. “I used to hunt rabbits, but I could never get anybody to go with us. It seems like everybody wants to hunt coyotes all the time. You can get camaraderie, more guys. We have a blast. Play cards, drink beer, and have a lot of fun.”   

Brittney Engle, 36, deposits a female coyote at the weighing station—38 pounds, according to the hanging scale. Engle says she loves hunting coyotes. She recently bought a nightscope to facilitate shooting in the dark. As the only woman to enter the contest this day, she’ll get a hundred dollars on top of the standard $80 for a qualifying coyote. Not bad for a night’s work, she says. “Not bad at all.”

‘This isn’t hunting’ 

The first documented wildlife-killing contest in the U.S. is believed to have been held by a group of ranchers in Chandler, Arizona, in 1957. The most lucrative of today’s contests is the West Texas Big Bobcat, held three times a year, in January, February, and March. This January, a three-person team of participants won the first-place prize—$43,720—for a 32.5-pound bobcat. (For the cat to qualify, the team also had to kill five foxes or coyotes.) More than 1,700 teams competed in the 2022 contests combined, providing a total payout of almost $400,000.

Michelle Lute is a conservation scientist with the nonprofit Project Coyote, which, in partnership with the Humane Society, has established a national coalition of more than 50 organizations fighting to ban wildlife-hunting competitions. They encourage wanton slaughter, Lute says. “A basic moral tenet is that it is wrong to take life without appropriate justification, and there’s no good reason for this whatsoever. Our group isn’t anti-hunting,” she says of Project Coyote, “but we are against hunting of carnivores because it is ethically indefensible and scientifically unjustified.”

Not all hunters approve of the contests either. “This isn’t hunting,” says Robert Brown, a member of the ethics committee of the nonprofit Boone and Crockett Club, established in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt and other hunters for the protection of wildlife resources. “It’s just shooting.” The techniques commonly used in contests are “unethical,” Brown says. “They give the hunter an unfair advantage.”

Back in February 2020, an undercover investigator with the Humane Society attended the Sullivan County coyote hunt and reported finding dead coyotes in the firehouse’s dumpster, including a large female that had been pregnant with a litter of pups.

In the wake of such investigations and the 2021 release of Wildlife Killing Contests, a graphic documentary produced by National Geographic Explorer Filipe DeAndrade, participants have become extremely wary of covert activists lurking in the crowd. Some hunters I meet question whether I’m a “legit” journalist writing for National Geographic. One man confronts me in the fire station saying I’m probably working undercover for PETA—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Carl Lindsley, a Sportsmen’s Federation trustee, is wary at first but agrees to host me at the contest because he assesses that I’m genuinely interested in learning the hunters’ point of view. He remembers the activist who infiltrated the 2020 event. “Some people are upset with the idea of killing coyotes,” he says, sitting in a folding chair in the firehouse. But what that activist didn’t know, he says, is most of the coyotes in the dumpster were collected by a local fur buyer who skins them and sells their coats (for about $25 apiece) and advertises their skulls to buyers online.

What’s more, he adds, the contest serves as an important fundraiser for outdoor programs for children and their families and habitat restoration. “If all we did is sit around and brag about how many coyotes we got, and our pile of money, there would be no purpose for this,” says Lindsley, who retired in 2016 after working in wildlife management for 48 years with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “Actually, if we don’t get any coyotes, I’m ecstatic—we get to keep more money for our programs.” It would be good if people would buy tickets just to eat at the banquet, he says, but he acknowledges that most people come for the shooting and the prizes. 

Most wildlife killing contests aren’t fundraisers. They’re solely for sport. Hunters defend the competitions, online or in person, on grounds that participants aren’t breaking any laws—it’s widely legal to kill many predatory species, including foxes, bobcats, and coyotes, often without limits. And if it’s legal to kill them, they say, what’s the harm in holding a killing contest? A coyote’s “headed for the dirt anyways,” one hunter wrote on Facebook.

The ecological argument

“The ‘antis’ don’t understand we’re actually helping in the grand scheme,” Kautz says. Coyotes are overpopulated, he asserts, and they eat everything—fawns, turkeys, rabbits, squirrels—causing ecosystems to be out of balance. They also attack pets and livestock, including, recently, several of his mother’s sheep. “It was the first time it ever happened but probably won’t be the last,” he says. “I think the coyote population is up a bit.”

“Coyotes need to be put in check,” agrees John Van Etten, the sportsmen’s federation president, warming up inside the firehouse where contestants are milling about, admiring the entries, listed by the hunter’s name and the coyote’s weight, on giant pieces of white paper covering corkboards. “Hunters perform that role.” If not, he says, the coyotes suffer from illness, such as mange, a skin disease caused by mites, and starvation.

Project Coyote’s Lute often hears that argument, “but it holds no water,” she says. “Illness and starvation are a natural part of life processes in the wild, and their occurrence isn’t simply a matter of population size.” She argues that coyotes don’t need to be controlled. “They’re a native part of North American systems,” she says. “They provide a full suite of ecosystem services—from rodent and rabbit control to reduced disease transmission and carcass cleanup—just as they have done for millennia.”

A number of studies, including by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and several states’ departments of wildlife management, have found that killing coyotes actually can cause their populations to grow. When some coyotes are eliminated, the survivors have more small mammals to prey on, and as food becomes more abundant, coyotes produce bigger litters. Surviving females reproduce earlier, and more coyotes replace those that were killed. Soon, researchers have found, there are at least as many coyotes as there were before the killings began. A USDA study found that after 60 to 70 percent of coyotes in a roughly 260,000-acre Army base in southeastern Colorado were removed over two years, the animals recovered their losses in as little as eight months.

Often, the desire to eliminate coyotes is driven by a deep-rooted fear of wild predators. “Coyotes cause a lot of damage on farms and to the local wildlife,” says New York assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, who lives in the Catskills and has come to the competition to support her constituents. She says she’ll fight any legislation aiming to ban hunting contests in her state. “These contests protect our citizens. I have grandchildren running around outside, and you don’t want to see a coyote come up.”

There have only ever been two documented fatal coyote attacks on humans in North America, says Ohio State University ecologist Stanley Gehrt, who has been studying the animals in and around Chicago for more than two decades. In August 1981, a coyote snatched a three-year-old girl in the driveway of her parents’ home in Glendale, California. The attack likely resulted from neighbors feeding the coyotes, leading it to lose its fear of people, Gehrt says. Then in October 2009, two eastern coyotes mauled a 19-year-old woman in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, in Nova Scotia. That case was more mysterious. Biologists theorize that the coyotes were starving because the mammals they normally preyed on, such as snowshoe hares, had become scarce on the island, forcing them to hunt moose. The woman may have been an easier target.

A surprising discovery

A Humane Society investigator, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, recently made a surprising discovery online. In early 2020, as in-person wildlife-killing contests were being canceled to prevent the spread of COVID-19, hunters formed several members-only Facebook groups to provide a socially distanced alternative.

Group members pay a fee, usually between $30 and a hundred dollars, to register for 24- to 48-hour contests in which they aim to shoot the biggest and most animals of a designated species for cash prizes ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Contestants are required to submit a video showing themselves saying a pre-established code word or phrase and jiggling their limp prey, confirming that the animal was newly killed because rigor mortis hadn’t set in. In contests for the heaviest kill, the videos must show the animals’ mouths and anuses to prove they aren’t stuffed with rocks. Administrators collect and distribute prize money through PayPal, instructing contestants to select “sending to a friend” to avoid scrutiny.

“Our investigation showed online killing-contest groups include thousands of individuals representing almost every state in the country—some where killing contests are prohibited, and many where they are not,” says Humane Society president Block. “Federal legislation is necessary to clearly and uniformly end these vicious competitions nationwide.” Regulation and law enforcement are complicated at the state level, she says, but the federal government has clear authority to police interstate commerce.  In February 2021, the Humane Society took the investigator’s findings to Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel. The organization reported that a Facebook group called Coyote Nation, created in March 2020 by a Michigan resident named Cody Lee Showalter, 35, is the largest and most significant of the online killing-contest groups detected so far. According to the group’s Facebook page, it has 3,200 members. 

In a letter to Nessel, the Humane Society details how Coyote Nation’s competitions occur on a near-weekly basis, with cash prizes of as much as $8,000 and member demand for expanded contests, including for foxes, raccoons, and competitions for kids. The society also lays out what it alleges are the relevant legal violations in the state, including case law that illustrates the broad scope of the state’s gambling and private lottery statutes.

A spokesperson for the attorney general said the matter is under review.

Without discussing Coyote Nation specifically, Jen Ridings, Facebook’s policy communications manager, says the company’s rules prohibit online gambling and gaming involving money without the prior consent of the social media giant. But she noted that hunting, along with fishing, is exempt from policies forbidding people from promoting acts of physical harm against animals on the platform.

Coyote Nation’s Showalter declined to be interviewed and changed the name of his group to CN after being contacted by National Geographic. “Please do not discuss anything to do with our group,” he wrote on Facebook. “We have not had any issues with anti-hunters yet and I would like to keep it that way….What we do here brings the hunting community together for some honest competition, that was why we started it and that is why it’s still going strong today.”

‘Good job, man!’

At the White Sulphur Springs fire station, the last coyotes of the day have been strung up on the scale. It’s 2 p.m. on Sunday. The contest is officially over. Organizers do one final review of all the entries and tally how much each winner will receive by check. Then they hurry across the parking lot to the giant four-door garage, where a lavish banquet is under way, to announce the winners. Plates are piled high with roast beef, mashed potatoes smothered in gravy, corn, green beans, and coleslaw, washed down with beer and soda.

Eager to hear the final results, Kautz, still dressed in his camouflage and heavy boots, is sitting at a table with a hunter named Chuck Lewis, from Melrose, New York. Lewis drove two hours to enter six coyotes. None of his canines are prizewinners, but he says the two sleepless nights and the long drive were worth the effort because he’ll receive $480. “Right now, I’m fueled on cigarettes and coffee. I’ve had no sleep,” Lewis says. “I have coyote hangover.”

As he and Kautz discuss other contests they’ve done, Lewis mentions that he likes the online Coyote Nation competitions for something to do between in-person derbies.

Standing behind a table covered with raffle prizes, Van Etten finally speaks into a mic to announce the winners. All told, he says, 66 coyotes were killed. The heaviest was 48.65 pounds, shot by Timothy Kautz.

“Good job, man!” Lewis says.

“I can’t believe I won,” Kautz replies.

As the sun sets on the Catskills, Kautz is $2,440 richer. (In addition to the $2,000 grand prize, he receives $240 for entering three qualifying coyotes, and a bonus $200 for the heaviest on Friday.) He plans to put his winnings toward the purchase of a $6,000 thermal scope—upping his night game in future contests. He hopes the next time a coyote takes his bait, it won’t see him aiming for it.

The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com. Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.



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