When a family driving through the desert near Las Cruces around Christmas 2014 found the bodies of 39 dead coyotes scattered among the sagebrush, they called Kevin Bixby. As executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center, he came out to take a look.
"They'd clearly been killed in a contest because they had the telltale signs," Bixby says. Their jaws were wired shut around blocks of wood or PVC pipe that listed the date and time they were killed and which number they were in the line of casualties. New Mexico Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn offered a $1,000 reward for information about the dumping—it wasn't the killing of the coyotes that was illegal; rather, it was the improper disposal of the carcasses.
In the legislative session shortly following that incident, New Mexico lawmakers had a chance to consider a bill that would ban such contests. It passed the Senate but failed in the House Agriculture Water and Wildlife Committee (now the Agriculture and Water Resources Committee), which conservationists called the place wildlife bills went to die.
This year, the bill is back. Ranchers and their representative organizations are incensed, insisting that these contests provide a necessary management tool for rural livestock owners who can't afford to keep losing calves or lambs to coyotes. Proponents of the bill argue it doesn't limit those options.
"This doesn't stop anybody's managing of coyote populations or predators on their land as they see fit, nor does it curtail hunting," says Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces), who introduced the bill with Sen. Mark Moores (R-Albuquerque).
Last year, Animal Protection Voters polled 600 active registered voters and found 61 percent opposed to organized killing contests. While it's tough to tell whether the bill will really move forward, the organization is optimistic.
"We're definitely feeling like there is a path to success and we could finally resolve the issue of these horrific contests across the state," says Jessica Johnson, chief legislative officer with Animal Protection Voters.
When California's wildlife agency implemented a similar ban, some contest organizers simply shifted their rhetoric and went on holding events. Steinborn says he thinks his proposed bill is tight enough to close that loophole. Johnson says Animal Protection Voters will "stay vigilant" to make sure that's the case.
"If they're doing it for a prize or clearly they're doing it for primarily entertainment purposes, then it's going to be illegal," Steinborn says. "It's a good start."
The banter at the committee hearing from those opposed included plenty of hypotheticals, though.
"The bill is loaded with holes," James Schmidt later told SFR. He worked with the US Department of Agriculture for decades, often tracking and killing coyotes, and has been involved with these contests off and on since the 1990s. "It's just not very well thought through at all. If a rancher contacts me and says, 'Hey, come over here and I'll give you $500 to remove coyotes—and bring your friends, too,' is that a contest?"
In these contests, hunters lure coyotes using handheld or electronic devices that imitate the sounds of prey animals or other coyotes. Numbers aren't documented, so it's tough to pin down how frequently these hunts occur and how many coyotes are killed in them, but estimates run at around 15 to 20 contests a year, with 20 to 40 kills resulting from each. No hunting licenses are required for in-state residents and no special use permits need be procured.
The one thing on which both sides agree is that coyote populations continue to grow. The disagreement breaks down over why.
"We've been killing coyotes for 100 years in the Southwest. We have a government agency that kills 80,000 to 100,000 coyotes a year, and their population is still increasing, which tells me it's not working," says Dave Parsons, a wildlife biologist who has worked on carnivore management for decades. He is now science advisor for Project Coyote, a national nonprofit that advocates for coexistence with carnivores. He says he knows of no study that verifies coyote killing contests have the management effects ranchers claim.
"They're just hunches," he says. "People believe it works, but there's no evidence that it works and there's no reason to believe that it would work based on the science that we do know."
That science shows that, when left alone, coyotes build social structures that regulate the local population. There, only 35 percent of females will breed—but disrupt their social structure and that number spikes to 90 percent of the females reproducing. You wouldn't know that, though, if you'd never seen coyotes in an undisturbed population. It's a chance ranchers aren't willing to take.
"You can't eliminate coyotes and that's not what anybody wants to do, but any tool that allows you to manage that population is a tool that's needed," says Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association.
To those who think that pile of dead coyotes is ugly, Cowan charges, there's nothing uglier than a healthy newborn calf half-eaten by coyotes. At weaning, that calf would be worth $500 or more—and who, she asks, can withstand those kinds of losses?
"In the committee someone called [the contests] a 'blood sport,' which is entirely not true," says Jessica Decker of Oreana Communications, which represents the cattle growers. "It's more about trying to manage those populations in areas where they've just gotten completely out of control. It's kind of one of those, 'Why kill an ant one by one if you can control them a little bit better all at once.'"
The bill banning coyote killing contests is one of several aimed at modernizing the laws, policies and makeup of the game commission that oversees wildlife. A bill also proposed by Steinborn that would have granted the state the authority to manage all wildlife here—some 40 percent of vertebrates aren't on that list, including coyotes—was tabled in the same Senate Conservation Committee meeting that passed the coyote killing contests bill. Its opponents included Alexa Sandoval, director of the Department of Game and Fish, who argued the department has neither the money nor the staff to add to its duties.
That's on the list for reform, too. A 2013 study commissioned by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish found roughly 160,000 anglers and 87,600 hunters among the state's population of 2 million, and the purchase of those licenses provides the bulk of the department's funding. Conservationists argue it's time to democratize that system and correspondingly shift the department's allegiances when it comes to management.