Hunting Competitions Put Coyotes In The Crosshairs During coyote hunting derbies, contestants vie to kill more coyotes than their competitors. Wildlife activists believe the competitions are unethical, and are pushing to make them a thing of the past.

Hunting Competitions Put Coyotes In The Crosshairs

Hunting Competitions Put Coyotes In The Crosshairs

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Allen "Big Al" Morris scans the Utah terrain for coyotes. Morris has notched a record four wins at the World Championship Coyote Calling Contest. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi/NPR hide caption

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Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi/NPR

Allen "Big Al" Morris scans the Utah terrain for coyotes. Morris has notched a record four wins at the World Championship Coyote Calling Contest.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi/NPR

Allen "Big Al" Morris is one of coyote hunting's greatest evangelists.

"Some people, their connection to nature is to go for a walk," says Morris. "Some people's connection is to go skiing, some people's connection is to fly fish. Some people's connection to nature is to go down to the park and play soccer. You know. I feel that connection through hunting."

By his own count, Morris has killed close to 2,000 coyotes in his life. "When they throw dirt on me, all they're gonna say is that was a hell of a coyote hunter," he says, laughing. "And he killed a few elk on the way too."

This past November, Morris was among more than 120 hunters gathered at the annual World Championship Coyote Calling Contest, in Spanish Fork, Utah. Since 1988, the championship, which is held every two years, has been a place for coyote hunters from around the country to fraternize and test their skills at the highest level. Teams of two have two days to find and kill as many coyotes as possible. Morris has won the event a record four times.

Even in a room bustling with camouflaged hunters, Morris cuts a distinctive figure. He's a tall, gregarious 51-year-old, who describes himself as "just a biscuit shy of 300 pounds." As Morris walks around the venue, chatting with friends, acquaintances and fans, it's clear that the competition is also a community.

But the atmosphere in the coyote hunting community isn't as carefree as it used to be. In recent years, coyote hunting competitions have come under pressure from environmental and animal rights groups in the form of lawsuits and legislation. In the last four years, two states have banned the events outright. That's left some competition hunters wondering how much longer the events will be legally allowed to continue.

Call of the coyote

Morris' obsession with coyotes traces back to when he was 17 years old. On an elk hunting trip in the Utah mountains, he'd been playing with a friend's hand call — a small instrument used by hunters to lure in elk and other game. But when Morris heard rustling from the trees ahead of him, instead of an elk, he says he found himself staring down a pack of juvenile coyotes.

"They were gonna take down whatever it was making that noise," he recalls. "They were gonna eat it."

Morris says that at first he was terrified, but after the pack ran off, he says he'd found his calling. "That's why I'm on this Earth," he says. "With this little, tiny call that I put in my mouth, I can manipulate a wild animal. I realized I had a gift."

Morris has since turned that "gift" into a livelihood. He co-hosts the show FurTakers on the Outdoor Channel, and as a representative for FoxPro, a major manufacturer in the world of coyote hunting, he spends much of the year traveling the country to give workshops and attend gear expos. Like many competitors, he also hunts coyotes for private ranchers to mitigate the effect of predators on their livestock.

His arsenal consists of a bolt-action rifle, a shotgun and an electronic caller — a field stereo, packed with dozens of pre-recorded prey sounds — to lure coyotes into shooting range. The trick, he says, is to find coyotes that haven't encountered these tactics before. That can be difficult in Utah, where the government pays hunters a year-round $50 bounty for every coyote killed in-state, as part of an effort to boost local mule deer populations. Since the program started six years ago, the state estimates that 74,460 coyotes have been "harvested," an average of 14,892 per year.

From deity to vermin

The American coyote, or Canis Iatrans, wasn't always so squarely in the cross-hairs.

For thousands of years the howl of the coyote could only be heard in their original habitat — the American Southwest — where they were held in check by wolves and other predators, and viewed by many of their Native American neighbors as a deity.

That changed with the arrival of European American settlers in the early 1800s, when coyotes and wolves began to expand their diet to livestock. For decades, the federal government actively encouraged the extermination of predators, and to this day, the Department of Agriculture hires hunters to manage coyote populations and protect livestock in many states.

But the wily coyote has managed to survive and ultimately spread to an area now ranging from Alaska to Panama. They can even be found in Los Angeles and New York City.

Environmental historian Dan Flores, author of Coyote America, says that public perceptions of the coyote started to improve in the 1960s, with the introduction of ecological concepts into wildlife biology and the rise of the environmental movement — bolstered by sympathetic pop culture characters like Wile E. Coyote, and the singing pack featured in Walt Disney's The Coyote's Lament.

At the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Wildlife Research Center in Logan, Utah, scientists study coyote behavior and develop new non-lethal predator management techniques. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi/NPR hide caption

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Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi/NPR

At the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Wildlife Research Center in Logan, Utah, scientists study coyote behavior and develop new non-lethal predator management techniques.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi/NPR

Today, critics of coyote hunting competitions say the animals play an important ecological role on the landscape, and dispute the conservation benefits of culling coyotes through contests.

"We are beyond killing animals for prizes and fun. This should be part of our history books," says Camilla Fox, the founder and executive director of Project Coyote, a California-based non-profit that wants to shut down coyote-killing competitions.

Project Coyote and partner organizations have used lawsuits to successfully shut down or delayed coyote hunting contests in several states. In 2014, California became the first U.S. state to ban them outright. Last month, Vermont followed suit.

"It's gratuitous slaughter, and that's precisely what cockfighting and dogfighting were," Fox says. "And it was up until not too long ago that both of those practices were still legal in the U.S. So as a society we have deemed them unacceptably cruel, and we hope that we can similarly ban this practice, state by state."

Some hunters also oppose coyote hunting competitions — they see them as unsporting, and worry they give hunting a bad name.

But even with the support of some in the hunting and ranching community, Fox acknowledges it's an uphill fight.

"My grandfather's generation said, 'We need to get rid of the predator, whether we poison it on our ranch or whether we go out and kill it as part of a killing contest.' That's the kind of mentality and culture that we're up against," says Fox.

Competition day

On the big day, Morris and his partner, Garvin Young, return from the two-day hunt, head-to-toe in camo print and face paint. They've driven more than 1,000 miles by truck, and return with 14 coyote carcasses.

Inside a hangar, each team presents their haul. Some have over two dozen dead coyotes, many with glazed eyes, frozen in rigor mortis. On the other side of the building, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources employees use shears and dental tools to snip ear samples and remove molars from each coyote caught in the state, to collect data for their mule deer conservation program. Then they're stacked onto a large trailer, to await being processed for their pelts.

As the pile grows to more than 200 coyotes, the hangar fills with the chatter of hunting stories and the acrid smell of entrails.

In the end, Morris is awarded third place, behind two teams from Texas. The winners walk away with new rifles and $1,600 in prize money. While the atmosphere is celebratory during the prize ceremony, there's also an undercurrent of uncertainty about the growing political fight over these contests.

Texas rancher and competitor Clay Reed, who took second place, worries it may just be a matter of time before they are outlawed. "You got your East Coast and your West Coast just squeezing it out of you," Reed says. "They're coming in from every direction. Colorado's gotten hit with it, Wyoming, California, and it's coming," he says, referring to places where activists have successfully challenged, delayed or disrupted coyote hunting competitions.

Morris has seen the challenges and heard the criticism, but doesn't believe there's a contradiction between appreciating animals and killing them — it's central to his livelihood and part of the natural order. "I think the coyote is here for us to utilize. God put 'em here for us," says Morris. "I love 'em. I don't want to eradicate them, but I'm damn sure gonna kill a bunch every year."

NPR's J. Czys contributed to the broadcast version of this story