By Ken Perrotte
A proposed Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources regulation banning the awarding of prizes, money or otherwise, for predator hunting contests was pulled from consideration last month after a legal review determined the agency’s oversight board likely didn’t have the authority to enact it.
In presenting the proposed regulation at a May meeting of the Board of Wildlife Resources, staff members parroted a “trigger” term regularly used by antihunting groups, noting that the contests, which usually include coyotes, foxes and bobcats, are dubbed “killing contests” by some people.
The board approved posting the proposed regulation for a public comment period.
Despite determining the board couldn’t impose a regulation, DWR staff still briefed the public comment results at August’s meeting of the agency’s Wildlife and Boating Committee, held a day before the full board meeting.
Comments totaled 1,559 comments, most emailed or submitted via an online form. Staff stated 1,472 comments were attributed to people listing a Virginia address. Unsurprisingly, about 76% of the comments were categorized as supporting the ban. This issue is pushed heavily in multiple states by groups such as the Humane Society of the United States (totally unaffiliated with local humane societies that run animal shelters). I reviewed all written comments. Except for a handful, the supportive comments were mostly verbatim copies of a couple of anti-generated form letters.
The head scratcher is why the department moved forward with the committee agenda item and reported comments when no authority exists to enact the proposed regulation. Speculation by several watchers of outdoor policy issues is that the report is a run-up to someone in the Virginia General Assembly proposing a law banning such contests.
Banning these predator hunting contests is an emphasis item for antis in the last couple years. The HSUS was behind a recent, narrowly passed proclamation condemning predator hunting competitions by Kalamazoo, Michigan, County Commissioners and a ban in Ann Arbor on selling items made with fur. The Ann Arbor ban, on the surface, doesn’t have anything to do with predator hunting contests, but representatives of the state trappers association point out the real goal is to take away the fur market and erode trapping and hunting incentives.
Ryan Brown, DWR’s director, acknowledged intense animal rights organization interest in the topic. He said no one at state-government-level above the DWR, such as the Governor or Secretary of Natural Resources, requested the regulation.
It’s no secret that Virginia is perceived to be in exceptionally liberal hands right now. Democrats control the statehouse, the attorney general’s office and both bodies of the General Assembly. In the first legislative session after the left assumed control, the Old Dominion’s firearms laws were flipped on their ear to resemble those of the more “common sense” states like California or New Jersey.
One DWR board member, Tom Sadler, a 2019 Region 4 appointee of Governor Ralph Northam, is on record in a March 2021 edition of the “Mountain Journal” an online publication for which he is listed as the “national correspondent in Washington D.C.,” as stating, “Mark me down as against those practices…There is nothing sporting about it and it's a perversion to call it hunting.”
Strong words. To many predator hunters I know, calling in a coyote with a mouth call, or an electronic call where allowed, isn’t viewed much differently than calling in a deer, duck, moose or turkey. All involve planning, logistics and, yes, a certain measure of skill.
A ‘Nuisance’ Designation
Many organizations, such as the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation and others, wrote public comment letters opposing the regulatory change. In lieu of the emotional appeals of antihunting groups, they offered meaningful facts, statistics and even recommended modifications short of a wholesale regulatory change. These well-reasoned arguments, versus the transparent form letters of the antis, were summarily grouped into the round-up of rationales presented as being for or against the proposal.
In CSF’s letter, John Culclasure states, “Coyote and predator hunting contests help maintain interest in hunting by incentivizing participation and extended hunting opportunities following the conclusion of most big game seasons. It is our sincere hope that the DWR will focus on expanding access and opportunity for these new recruits to turn them into lifelong license purchasers, rather than actively working to decrease opportunities as this regulation would do.”
Trevor Santos of the NSSF wrote, “Coyotes can be dangerous to people, pets, livestock, and wildlife if not managed properly. The U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted a study on cattle deaths in 2015 and coyotes accounted for the highest percentage of cattle deaths due to predators (40.5 percent).
“Specifically, in Virginia, coyotes accounted for nearly 75 percent of calf death loss due to predators.”
News coverage in 2021 across the United States and Canada is awash with stories about coyotes encroaching on urban or suburban area, biting people, including kids, and necessitating “cull operations” by wildlife officials or expensive trap and euthanize contractors. A spate of reports from British Columbia shows 45 documented attacks by coyotes in Vancouver since last December. Similar reports are in California, especially San Francisco. Google “coyote attacks” and see how many stories pop up.
Santos declared, “Hunting, even in the form of contests and organized competitions with cash and prizes of monetary value, should remain as the preferred method to manage predator populations, including coyotes, which are considered a “Nuisance Species” by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.”
Of concern is that wholesale misinformation seemed to be tolerated, left for the record uncorrected. For example, one public comment letter from the Animal Welfare Institute states, "Contests in Virginia predominantly target native carnivores...” That assertion appears ungrounded in fact. Brown stated in an email, “Based on what I know, coyotes are the predominant targeted species.”
Anyone who knows anything about these events know they primarily target coyotes. So, why didn’t the state agency charged with using facts and science to manage wildlife call out the obvious falsehoods?
This leads to the nagging rub in this, for me anyway. As Santos points out, the Code of Virginia (29.1-100) legally designates coyotes as a nuisance species. In most states where coyotes are classified as nuisances, accorded the same status as feral hogs, rats, starlings, nutria, kudzu and other undesirables, people can shoot, trap or kill them any way possible short of napalm and hellfire missiles.
Feral hogs wreak incredible damage on the environment, demolishing crops, eating eggs of ground-nesting birds, causing soil erosion. They’re shot by the thousands from helicopters in Texas. If feral hogs were across the Virginia landscape as much as coyotes, would DWR be saying, “No contests with bonuses for killing the most hogs?” Doubtful.
The law allows Virginia landowners to trap or shoot furbearing animals on their own land year-round if the animals are causing crop or property damage, or posing a threat to human health or safety, or otherwise causing a nuisance.
Harvest limits are set on deer, turkey and many fish, for example, because the government - the people - consider those species valued public resources. Contrast that with Eastern coyotes - not the vaunted song dogs native to parts of the American West, but invasive coyotes ranging from New England to Florida. These nonnative furbearers are increasingly dominant across the landscape, preying extensively on desired game animals, especially deer, and killing or driving away smaller, native furbearers, such as foxes. Most ranchers and homeowners who support predator contests ask for intensive control to protect livestock and domestic animals.
Emphasis on “Optics”
This is a complex issue. A short book could be written about it but there’s no space for that.
DWR’s Brown states, “Our goal is to preserve predator hunting and opportunities for predator management in Virginia. This includes the current overall approach to coyote control methods and abilities to address agricultural and other landowner concerns through various available means. That’s why the proposal focused solely on the money and not other topics, which was a conscious choice not to pursue any proposal that could affect the hunting and management opportunities we are fortunate to have available.”
Brown earlier stated, “The narrower topic of debate among hunters seems to be whether the optics of more than nominal financial benefits for these contests is in the long-term best interest of predator hunting.”
“Optics” - a fashionable term relating to public perception - drives a lot of public policy these days.
Nobody does optics better than antihunting organizations. Even before social media arose, these groups orchestrated optics wars, using espionage in searching for perfect images, videos or anecdotes to shock and drive funding.
Granted, some people who participate in predator contests post things on social media that might turn off nonhunters while fueling antihunters. They should knock it off. But neither should state fish and wildlife agencies appear be aiding the antis. A couple propaganda images used by DWR in its proposal, now part of the public record, showed a small trailer with dead red foxes. Another had a larger trailer with coyotes. Missing was the point that these animals were being readied for removal by fur buyers.
Yes, money can incentivize unethical or illegal activity, such as – hypothetically - moving trapped coyotes. Feral hogs have been trapped and relocated, illegally offloaded to proliferate and offer new hunting opportunities. Make a prize substantial enough in a big buck contest and some poachers will shoot deer at night or over bait to cash in. How do you think the invasive northern snakehead fish materialized in Virginia’s tidal tributaries? Easy. Someone wanted a new fishery, even if it meant creating it illegally.
Contests for catching or killing the biggest or the most are nothing new. Big buck contests, fishing tournaments for dozens of species, biggest turkey competitions – they’re everywhere. Virginia has the vaunted Old Dominion One-Shot turkey hunting contest, a plum public relations generator for the DWR and the Virginia Wildlife Foundation. Hunters pay a $1,000 registration fee to hunt and awarded prizes in several contest categories are substantial and certainly have monetary value.
Bass tournaments try to keep fish alive, but everyone knows a certain percentage of those fish die after they’re weighed in. Tournaments for many other species often see no attempt to keep fish alive, such as some saltwater tournaments for billfish, flounder and more.
Brown said this issue has been discussed by legislatures and state fish and wildlife agencies in other states, including Maryland, in recent years. “I believe that if it was not considered by our staff and board, we would have been likely to see legislative proposals in the future regardless,” Brown said.
“Optics” have multiple vantage points. Yes, perceptions of hunters by nonhunters may be affected by the optics of a predator-hunting contest. Anecdotally checking around, though, the optics for many Virginia hunters, and the rural landowners and ranchers who want coyote nuisance control operations – paying or otherwise - is that actions such as the proposed regulation was akin to DWR playing footsie with groups like HSUS, seemingly, taking cues from staunch liberal states such as Vermont and Massachusetts and a few in the southern Rocky Mountains and West Coast.
Instead of appearing to cave to the optics-driven agendas of antihunting organizations – businesses, really, that use emotion and graphic images to drive funding – perhaps a state fish and wildlife agency could have improved the optics related to predator hunting - and contests – by actively working to help nonhunters understand the need for predator management and healthy populations of other species that are affected. I’d bet many nonhunters and some antihunters are unaware of the negative impacts predators, especially invasive predators, have on the other wildlife sharing the same habitat or on the livelihood of ranchers and farmers. In Virginia, at least, this seems to an, “All quiet on the Eastern front” proposition.
Where Are the Advocates?
When I was getting into hunting, just about everyone working for a state game department was a hunter -- an avid hunter. And if they weren’t avid hunters, they were avid supporters.
According to Conservation Leaders for Tomorrow, which manages a professional development program designed for leaders within the natural resource sciences, “More than half of the students graduating with wildlife and natural resource degrees and several agency professionals have never hunted and know little about it or the reasons why people hunt.” I have heard numbers as high as about 75% related to that concern.
If you are an avid or long-time hunter, it’s worrisome to know that the state agencies established and charged, originally at least, with promoting healthy populations of game species are, as one hunting advocate noted, slowly morphing into miniature environmental protection agencies, disenfranchising core constituencies along the way.
In Virginia, for example, the game department last year removed the word “game” from its name, changing the title from Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to Department of Wildlife Resources. Words matter.
How many cracks are in the hunting armor of state fish and wildlife agencies? How serious are the threats to hunters from state agencies that are increasingly staffed and led by people who don’t think, believe or act like us? From political appointees above them who are beholden to antihunting groups?
Not all segments of the hunting community will agree with the staging of predator hunting contests, even for legally designated “nuisance” animals. Approve of them or not, these contests really are not much different than any other contest that awards prizes for the biggest or the most.
The upshot for the hunting community is that every hunter or shooting enthusiast needs to heed the goings-on in state fish and wildlife agencies. Outdoor writers for daily newspaper, often the “Fourth Estate” members who kept honest-broker eyes on these governmental agencies, have mostly gone away. Nongovernmental organizations noted earlier monitor political and regulatory action, but local community involvement seems to be waning. Many government fish and wildlife agencies seem to want to cultivate their own social media outlets to spoon-feed information, creating a monopoly on where citizens and the hunters and anglers paying for these agencies get their information.
As we’ve seen politics drive Americans increasingly into left and right camps and echo chambers, it’s even more important for state fish and wildlife agencies to stick with facts and science. When you start engaging in optics wars, you become increasingly political. And let’s face it: Optics-driven public policy hasn’t been very successful of late. Oh, and to paraphrase the old saying --“They (fish and wildlife agencies) need to remember to dance with the girl (hunters and anglers) that brung ‘em.”
2021-2022 The Hunting Wire Voice of Leadership Panel
The Voice of Leadership Panel is an appointed group of outdoor industry leaders who have volunteered to contribute their voices on key hunting and outdoor recreation issues to inform, inspire, and educate participants within our community.