Is Bounty Hunting Justified?

The bounty on coyotes was announced last November as a pilot project. It was launched by the province because coyotes are a “perennial problem” for farmers and ranchers and are becoming a danger to rural families. There are no limits to the number of coyote that can be killed; bounty hunters just have to turn in all four paws, which they cut off the dead animal, as proof of the kill. At $20 a coyote that’s $5 a paw.

The government said it wanted as many as 36,000 coyotes killed. There’s inconsistent information, but after four months, the paws from 15,000 (Leader Post) to 18,000 (CBC) coyotes had been turned in. Only about 860 people have benefitted, with an average kill of 18 coyotes, with one hunter killing 90. The 360 paws from these 90 coyotes would be worth $1,800, which some might say is “a hell of a way to make a living”. Estimates of the average coyote kill in Saskatchewan range from 21,000 to 25,000 a year, though with the low price of fir, the number killed last year was 16,000. So it looks like the kill is going to be in the same range as before the bounty was declared.

RURAL COMMON SENSE

Most farmers and ranchers have apparently voted by not getting out their guns. This doesn’t surprise me after looking at what has been reported during this controversy. Rural people likely have a better grasp of the balance of nature and the probability of program effectiveness than do Regina politicians and bureaucrats. Some know that a strategy that targets coyotes that are actually threatening livestock is better than a broad-brush approach. As one farmer said, coyotes are “smart buggers”, explaining that he was able to keep them away from his livestock by killing four or six a year.

Others commented that coyotes help them by keeping gopher and rat populations in check. Some have even said that they think that chronic wasting disease in local deer has shifted coyote hunting behavior. Some critics argue that the $720,000 the government was prepared to spend (36,000 times $20) would be better spent beefing-up the much cheaper livestock guard dog program, which others argue that compensation for lost livestock would be cheaper and more humane. Some argue that coyote control would be better left with RM’s, who could use a diversity of strategies. Agriculture Minister Bjornerud rebutted that with 241 of 296 RM’s enrolled the bounty clearly has grass-roots support.

In the balance, is this bounty a progressive, effective and humane solution to human/wildlife conflict? The weaker animals might be disproportionately culled, and, as a similar program in Nova Scotia discovered, we could just see bigger coyote litters in the aftermath of the killing. Unlike many government programs, nature isn’t one-dimensional. But the program doesn’t seem to have entertained much thought, either in terms of the workings of nature or program objectives. When Minister Bjornerud was challenged about this, his retort was, should we “…sit back until some little kid out of some family in rural Saskatchewan gets attacked by six or seven coyotes”. This is more “politics of fear”, not assessing whether the program will actually reduce the risks to families.

When he announced the bounty, the Minister sounded more goal-oriented, saying “This is the only thing really that we felt would keep the numbers down and try to put a little fear in the coyotes again.” And how has this view stood up? One critic quoted in the Medicine Hat Prairie Post noted that there was no evidence at all that a pack of magnificent, white-coated coyotes killed in the Swift Current area had anything to do with killing livestock. They were no threat to farmer’s animal property and there was no justification for killing them. But hunting coyotes that are killing livestock is different than bounty hunting. Bounty hunting targets all coyotes and inevitably leads to indiscriminate killing, which doesn’t necessarily address the problem.

PROGRAM EVALUATION NEEDED

Minister Bjornerud’s own figures show this. His goal was the indiscriminate killing of 36,000 coyotes, but it seems that a little over half of this will occur. Even if the target of 36,000 dead coyote had been met (and an astounding 144,000 coyote paws submitted), this would only be about 12% to 18% of the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 total population in Saskatchewan. The actual kill to February amounted to only 6% to 9% of this.

The Minister rightly rejects the impracticality of barriers to keep the coyote away from all livestock; some ranches would need 14 or 15 miles of fencing. And anyway we don’t want to see the prairies inundated with more fencing that further interferes with wildlife habitat. We will therefore have to look in other directions for a sustainable way for humans and wildlife to co-exist.

But indiscriminate killing of coyotes makes no more sense than massive fencing projects. The bounty doesn’t target coyotes that are endangering livestock or humans. And even with the bounty incentive, “only” 6% to 9% of the coyote population has been killed. According to the Minster’s own broad-brush logic, that leaves 91% to 94% of the threat remaining. And you’d have to kill 100,000 to 150,000 coyotes to reduce these risks by just one-half. This approach is untenable and the bounty mentality is obsolete. Using this “hit and miss” approach, how many dead coyote are required to save just one sheep or cow? Compensation for livestock clearly makes more sense.

When I say “only” 6% to 9% of the estimated coyote population has been killed, I don’t intend to show disrespect for the thousands of creatures destroyed. The idea of cutting off paws of a canine, much like our farm dog, and perhaps leaving the creatures to rot, is unsettling. The protection of habitats and biodiversity, which is in humanity’s fundamental interest, will require many methods including legal. But common sense already shows the coyote bounty has failed. So let’s get on with finding effective and humane ways to learn to better share the land. Do we really have any alternative?

Next time I’ll consider why our ideas about wildlife management are changing.

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