In mid-December, a hunting contest was held in central Arizona for the 11th year in a row. The team that killed the most coyotes won. The event’s name emphasized the goal: It was called the “Santa Slay Coyote Tournament.”
It might have been the contest’s final year. The Arizona Game and Fish Commission is now considering banning Santa Slay and other privately run derbies that target predators and animals typically hunted for their fur. While coyote hunting would remain legal year-round and with no bag limits, a proposed rule would draw the line at doing it for competition.
“We’re not looking for controversial things to get into,” Jim Zieler, the commission’s chairman, said in an interview. “But this is something that we needed to evaluate a little bit closer and make sure we’re painting the right picture of what ethical hunting and fair chase in Arizona is all about.”
Arizona is among several states that are mulling or have enacted similar bans of private contests amid pressure from animal protection groups and growing public outcry. New Mexico prohibited coyote-hunting tournaments in the state last month, as did Vermont in 2018. California in 2014 outlawed all predator-hunting contests, and lawmakers in New Jersey, New York and Oregon are considering some form of ban.
Participants in such contests typically compete over a day or weekend to kill the largest animals, the most animals, or the heaviest cumulative weight of animals. Most center on predators including foxes and bobcats, and coyotes — adaptable Western canines that have rapidly spread across the nation and beyond — are a common target. Participants sometimes attract coyotes using “calls,” devices that simulate the sounds of prey or coyote cubs in distress. Winners get cash or prizes.
Advocates for the contests say they help keep predators like coyotes, which some view as a threat to livestock or a nuisance, in check. Opponents say science does not back that up, and they condemn the events as gruesome celebrations of slaughter.
The competitions are held in at least 45 states, said Jill Fritz, director of wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States, which for two years has worked with the California-based advocacy group Project Coyote to lead a push against the events. In a 2018 news release, the Humane Society said its undercover investigations at contests in New York and New Jersey documented “participants slinging the dead bodies of coyotes and foxes into piles” and joking about their deaths.
“Some of the foxes are so tiny,” Fritz said. “It boggles the mind what they are celebrating.”
Animal activist groups’ opposition to the events has been buoyed by support from some state wildlife officials and wildlife management scientists. The Wildlife Society, an organization that represents wildlife professionals and does not frown on hunting as a management tool, issued a statement in March that gently discouraged the contests, saying they “may undermine the public’s view of ethical hunting.”
Mike Finley, chair of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, urged a ban in a March letter to Oregon lawmakers. He called coyote-hunting contests “counterproductive” — citing research showing the animals step up reproduction when killing increases — as well as “revolting."
“As a hunter myself, I am proud of the key role the hunting community plays in conserving our state’s wildlife,” Finley wrote. “These killing contests, however, are not responsible hunting. They glorify killing for its own sake and cast Oregon’s entire hunting community in a bad light.”
The Arizona Game and Fish Commission proposed the prohibition on predator-hunting contests following widening opposition at the local level. Several Arizona municipalities and counties, including the city of Tucson and Yavapai County, where the Santa Slay was held, have passed resolutions condemning the events. If approved, a statewide ban would take effect by this fall, said Zieler, who estimated that 10 to 12 of the contests are staged each year in Arizona.
Zieler said the topic is an unusual one for the Arizona commission. It usually sticks to science-based questions, and the state wildlife department’s review of relevant research determined killing contests aren’t likely to dent Arizona’s robust coyote population or increase it, he said.
“So this is more of a social issue,” he said.
About 90 percent of speakers at public hearings on the rule over the past month were against the contests, Zieler said.
“There has been a lot of social outcry against this, and you can kind of understand why,” said Zieler, who added that he is a hunter. “It’s difficult to stand up and defend a practice like this. It’s just not enough to say, ‘Science will tell us it doesn’t have a significant impact on the predator population.’”
The organizer of the Santa Slay, a predator-hunting group called Call-In The Country, did not respond to a request for comment. On Facebook, it encouraged its followers to oppose the change in public comments to the game and fish commission. “It is important that you are professional in your email and do not come across like a redneck against the humane society,” it wrote.
In Massachusetts, a gun shop that organizes a controversial coyote-killing contest on Cape Cod, Powder Horn Outfitters, defended the event in a recent opinion piece published by Cape Cod Today. It compared it to a fishing tournament, “a baseball game, or even Girl Scouts selling their cookies. They all promote sportsmanship, dedication, and [camaraderie] among like-minded individuals who participate in events which utilize their skill set in hopes to be the best at their hobby.”
Massachusetts has not yet proposed limiting or outlawing the contests, but debate over them prompted the state wildlife agency, known as MassWildlife, to schedule four public listening sessions. At the first, in the town of West Barnstable last month, an official emphasized that the tournament was not about moderating coyote populations, according to CapeCod.com.
“The contest is being offered by a private business, it has nothing to do with managing wildlife,” Marion Larson, MassWildlife’s chief of information and education, told the crowd, the site reported. "I do want to make it clear, coyote contests are not a management tool by any stretch of the imagination.”