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Upcoming legislation aims to challenge coyote killings

January 7, 2017 GMT

Rows of thin carcasses hung from beams, legs bound by rope and coarse sandy fur smudged with blood. The bodies were counted and weighed, then stacked in a heap. They were the targets in coyote killing contests in the American West.

It’s a practice that happens on a near weekly basis in some parts of New Mexico, but which many wildlife groups and state legislators say is unethical, inhumane and wrecks the natural order in which coyotes keep rodent populations in check.

State Sens. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, and Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, plan to introduce legislation in the coming legislative session that would prohibit individuals or groups from organizing killing contests or offering prizes for the animal’s slaughter.

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On the opposite side, some ranchers, livestock owners and rural lawmakers believe the contests help curb coyote populations and prevent them from killing cattle or pets.

The conflict over whether the killing contests are cruel or a means of managing a predator also has inspired a documentary by California-based nonprofit Project Coyote. Screenings of Unfair Game: Ending Wildlife Killing Contests are being held in advance of the legislative session, which starts Jan. 17. The film will be shown Sunday at the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe.

Moores stands with the filmmakers.

“These contests are just blood sports,” he said in an interview. “All they are about is killing as many animals as you can and not necessarily about protecting livestock, protecting property. It’s just not a good wildlife management.”

He said landowners have a right to protect their property if it is threatened, but “dozens and dozens of carcasses not used, just killed for the sake of killing” are “unseemly.”

Under state law, coyotes are classified as a varmint that can be hunted year-round without a permit or limit on kills. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 566 intentional kills by firearms in New Mexico in 2015 and just under 69,000 intentional kills nationally.

Since 2013, legislation has been introduced in New Mexico to make it illegal to conduct killing contests such as the ones that often target coyotes. During the 2015 session, a bill cosponsored by Moores and Steinborn cleared the Senate but died in the House of Representatives. Some lawmakers from rural areas have objected to the state attempting to regulate hunting on private lands.

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Advocates of the bill hope it will pass now that Democrats have a majority in both the Senate and House.

Mary Katherine Ray, wildlife chairwoman for the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter, said the bill’s passage could pave the way for more protections for the species.

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish is responsible for protecting other species of wildlife. “It seems really strange that we don’t include coyotes, like they have no value, like they are some kind of trash — which they clearly are not.”

Ray said coyotes are crucial for controlling rodent populations from spreading disease and in preserving grazing areas relied on by cattle by preying on smaller animals that feed on plants.

The perspectives of wildlife advocates, ranchers, scientists and community leaders on this issue are intertwined in Unfair Game.

Peter Coyote, an actor and Project Coyote advisory board member, says in a trailer for the film that “one of the biggest impediments for stopping these wildlife killing contests is most people don’t know they exist.” He says, through the documentary, the groups wants “to bring [wildlife killing contests] out to the light of day and let you decide.”

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