More than 800 coyotes were killed at the direction of the Arizona Game and Fish Department from 2012 to 2014 for the purpose of protecting pronghorn fawns in five areas around the state, agency officials say.
Opponents of the coyote killing — carried out by shooting them from aircraft and trapping — condemned it as an “ongoing slaughter” and maintained that the department favors game species such as pronghorns at the expense of coyotes and other predators.
Controversy over the large-scale killing of coyotes erupted earlier this month when a group called Predator Masters hosted a convention and associated coyote hunting in Tucson. Protesters turned out in opposition to the group, and the Pima County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution this week opposing future Predator Masters hunts in the county.
Game and Fish Department officials outlined their reasons for assigning agency employees and contract hunters to conduct what they term “lethal removal” of coyotes.
“Pronghorns are in decline — well below our target objectives across the state” for the species, sometimes referred to as antelope, said Jim deVos, assistant director of wildlife management with Game and Fish. “Fawn production is below what is needed.
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“We do use predator removal in a very targeted, surgical fashion to help bolster fawn production and get the population back to a desired state,” deVos said.
What a department document refers to as “the focused intensive removal of coyotes” is carried out “just prior to and during the fawning season,” said April Howard, an agency biologist specializing in predators and other wildlife.
Game and Fish documents indicate that coyotes were targeted during the 2012-14 period at five sites around the state with pronghorn populations — with fawn survival increasing at each of the sites when coyotes were removed.
One of the areas is near Sonoita and another is near Douglas, both of which are located southeast of Tucson. Other areas where coyotes were killed to benefit pronghorns were near St. Johns.
Coyote removal has been carried out intermittently over the years. The most recent available statistics were from 2012 to 2014.
“At this point, we only use it (coyote control) for pronghorns,” said Amber Munig, chief of the department’s game branch. “We have looked at it for other species such as deer. It’s available if we determine that it’s an effective tool for those populations.”
OPPONENTS OF COYOTE KILLING
Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, said the Game and Fish coyote-killing program “is not sound wildlife management.”
“These types of predator-elimination programs are not effective and continue to promote a discredited view of the predator-prey relationships — kill more predators and have more prey such as deer, pronghorn and elk,” Bahr said. “Coyotes are resilient and will compensate by having larger litters and breeding earlier.”
She said coyote predation isn’t the only factor affecting pronghorn populations.
“There are many factors that affect pronghorn numbers. Most of them have to do with habitat, as is the case with most wildlife,” Bahr said. “Game and Fish kills mountain lions when bighorn sheep numbers are down and kills more coyotes to grow more pronghorn.”
Ricardo Small — a retiree with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in wildlife biology from the University of Arizona and a past executive secretary of the Arizona Wildlife Federation — called the Game and Fish coyote program an “ongoing slaughter.”
“It is tragic that the Arizona Game and Fish Commission and Department, charged with managing our state’s wildlife, picks favorite species — always species that humans shoot — and then, in large numbers, kills other species who sometimes eat the favored game animals,” Small said. “Often that policy of killing large numbers of predators ends up being futile and self-defeating. There are numerous reports from wildlife biologists that refute any long-term benefit from killing large numbers of predators, particularly coyotes.”
Game and Fish officials, who said they have no firm estimate of Arizona’s coyote population, disagreed strongly with the contentions of the coyote-control opponents.
“We manage wildlife carefully,” deVos said, noting that only a small percentage of the nearly 850 species managed by the department are game species. “Our non-game program is one of the prides of the department. To say we focus on game species is grossly unfair.”
He emphasized that pronghorns are “not only a game species. A lot of people watch pronghorns” as watchable wildlife instead of hunting them.
Opponents of coyote-killing programs sometimes maintain that wildlife agencies should let nature take its course without interfering.
“That’s conceptually an interesting idea, and it worked well before Arizona had close to 7 million people,” deVos said. “But it’s absolutely impractical in practice” in a state with a growing population where maintaining an ecological balance is challenging.