Bristol-area coyote hunt causes controversy

BRISTOL — A coyote hunt scheduled for the second weekend in February has sparked debate in Bristol and surrounding towns, with state officials also questioning whether such hunts have any effect on coyote populations.
The “Wile E. Coyote Hunt 2017” is scheduled to begin Thursday, Feb. 9, at 12:01 a.m. and conclude the following Sunday, Feb. 12, at noon. According to the flyer advertising the hunt, coyotes must be taken by legal means and hunters must have valid Vermont hunting licenses. Coyotes can be taken from anywhere in the state, not just Addison County.
The flyer stipulates that hunters must retrieve the carcasses after the contest is over and entreats hunters to “PLEASE, PLEASE dispose of them properly.” It offers cash prizes for the top three “heaviest legally taken dogs.”
For Bristol resident Holly Tippett, an organizer with the volunteer Vermont Coyote Coexistence Coalition, such coyote contests are “wanton waste.”
“It’s not that any of us objects to hunting,” said Tippett. “We object to this kind of hunting. Any animal that can be hunted 365 days a year, day and night — it’s not ethical and it’s not good sound science or wildlife management. The killing contests make it entertainment.
“There’s no bag limits on them so they can kill as many as they can, all at the same time running them down to exhaustion with their dogs and then they turn their dogs on them to kill them. That kind of hunting to me is unethical and most hunters that I speak with are deeply offended by it.”
Coyotes are the only animals addressed in the state’s hunting guidelines for which there are no closed season and no bag limit (see story below for other Vermont coyote hunting regulations).
Tippett also noted concerns that surfaced after a Shoreham coyote hunt a year ago, when residents reported that coyote hunters entered their property without permission, agitated livestock and threatened property owners.
Tippett and fellow coyote advocate Jeff Mack took their concerns to the Bristol selectboard at its Jan. 16 meeting. Tippett said she also contacted Vermont’s top game warden, Col. Jason Batchelder, with her concerns about the hunt.
Tippett added that since she began organizing against the hunt, she’s noticed more postings closing land to coyote hunting, among them at Bristol’s Watershed Center.
Watershed Center Board Member David Brynn said that the Watershed Center welcomes hunters and encourages them to use the property, but the land is posted against coyote hunting because it’s year round. Most hikers, said Brynn, don’t want to hike during hunting season. And allowing coyote hunting could subject hikers to gunfire 365 days a year.
Postings on the Watershed Center read: “NOTICE: Hunting of deer and game birds permitted in season. For safety reasons no trapping or hunting of coyotes or any other animals is permitted.”
Contest organizer Todd Baldwin of Bristol said that for him the purpose of the contest is to improve deer hunting and to protect farms from coyotes’ marauding.
“I’m not in it for pleasure, I’m just doing it to thin down the coyote population, to keep the coyote population down to have more deer,” Baldwin said.
A lifelong deer hunter who hasn’t taken a deer in seven years, Baldwin said coyotes’ success in Addison County has reduced the deer population and made life harder for hunters.
Baldwin bought the rights to the Bristol event two years ago from the previous organizer. He said that the number of participants is down due to the public outcry — so far, only about eight hunters have signed up this year.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t even do it no more. They still hunt coyotes, but they don’t join the hunt because they don’t want the hassle of anti-hunters,” Baldwin said.
A coyote hunter since he first got a hunting license as a teenager, Baldwin, now 50, said that the event used to attract over 100 hunters.
“It’s pretty much going down every year. And I might not do it next year because of anti-hunters and stuff like that protesting and doing what they do to get it to stop,” he said.
Asked about some of the concerns raised against previous hunts, Baldwin said that proper disposal of coyote carcasses can involve giving them to friends who use the fur, or if the fur is too mangy leaving the carcasses in the woods for crows, eagles and bobcats to scavenge. Some coyote hunters use the meat for trapping, to attract other predators.
He also said that it was important for all hunters to treat others’ land with respect: “I was brought up to ask to hunt somebody’s land. I don’t care if I’ve hunted the same land 15 years in a row, I ask every year. That’s the way I was brought up, to respect other people’s land like I would want my land to be respected.” 
   BIOLOGISTS SAY COYOTES occupy an important niche in the Vermont landscape as predators of small rodents, insects, small birds, fruit and plants, in addition to young deer. Photo by John Hall/Vermont Fish and Wildlife
Among Baldwin’s concerns one resonates for many outdoor enthusiasts, regardless of their stance on coyote hunting: loss of wild land to development.
“I used to hunt a lot of places when I was younger, and most of these places are getting bought up and developed,” he said. “And if you go to state land, there’s so many people hunting there now it’s not even worth hunting there.”  
But state biologists said that although coyotes are relative newcomers as a species, they occupy an important niche in the Vermont landscape. The extermination of wolves and cougars in the 19th century left the Vermont landscape without key predators. Coyotes arrived in the 1940s and now occupy a predator niche closer to foxes than wolves, eating small rodents, insects, small birds, fruit and plants, as well as carrion, and at times killing fawns up to about six weeks old.
“By six weeks old a fawn can outrun a coyote without even trying,” said Nick Fortin, Deer Project Leader for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
A VFW coyote fact sheet states that “deer numbers are carefully monitored, and there is no indication that coyotes are negatively influencing deer populations in Vermont.”
In fact, says Fortin, coyotes are “a benefit to the deer. Having a predator in that ecosystem keeps the deer healthy.”
Moreover, Fortin explained that killing coyotes is unlikely to have an effect on the coyote population.
“Broadly speaking, the more you kill, the more pups they’re going to have. You’re going to have as many coyotes as there is food to support them,” he said.
Fortin also noted that even if you wipe out the coyotes on one patch, sooner or later other coyotes will simply move into the area.
Asked about the objections raised by coyote advocates against hunting with dogs and coyote hunters against how coyotes kill, Fortin said, “That’s nature. That’s the way canids, dogs, that’s the way they kill. They just start eating them. And, yeah, it’s gruesome, but who are we to judge?”
Special Assistant to the VFW Commissioner Kim Royar was for years the agency’s coyote expert as leader of the state’s furbearer management program. Royar said the state has no designated season for and no bag limits on coyotes taken because of the coyotes’ success in regenerating their numbers in response to hunting.
Said Royar, “Coyotes have been persecuted out West for over 100 years with no impact on the population. They can adapt to heavy harvest by increasing their reproductive rates. And so there is really no threat to the population from harvesting.”
Asked if the department approves of the kind of “shoot ’em up and put ’em in a pile” large-scale coyote hunts that have kindled public outrage, Royar said: “It goes against everything we teach. We teach in hunter ed that animals that are taken should be respected and utilized. That’s the position that we take.”
Asked whether the department would reexamine its coyote-hunting regulations, Royar said, “I think we would need public support for that, and I think that there’s a question about our role in terms of regulating ethics vs. regulating biology and sustainable populations.”
Still, Putney Representative David Deen, chair of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources committee, has introduced a bill asking for a study of the state’s coyote population and recommendations on changes to the state’s coyote hunting regulations (H. 60). The bill asks that such a report include a comparison of how other states handle bag limits and night hunting. It also stipulates that the proposed study make a recommendation on whether the state should impose limits on coyote season.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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