A proposed Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources regulation banning the awarding of prizes, money or otherwise, for predator hunting contests was pulled from consideration last week after a legal review determined the agency’s oversight board likely didn’t have the authority to enact it.
Parroting a “trigger” term regularly used by anti-hunting groups, DWR’s original staff presentation at a May Board of Wildlife Resources meeting stated that the contests, which usually include coyotes, foxes and bobcats, are dubbed “killing contests” by some people. The board approved posting the proposed regulation for public comment.
Despite determining the board couldn’t impose a regulation, DWR staff still briefed the public comment results at last week’s meeting of the agency’s Wildlife and Boating Committee.
Among 1,559 comments, most emailed or submitted via an online form, 1,472 were attributed to people listing a Virginia address. Unsurprisingly, about 76 percent supported the ban. This issue is pushed heavily in multiple states by groups such as the Humane Society of the United States (totally unaffiliated with local humane societies that run animal shelters).
I reviewed all written comments. Except for a handful, the supportive comments were mostly verbatim copies of form letters.
So, if no authority exists to enact the proposed regulation, why did the department move forward with the agenda item and report comments? Speculation by several watchers of outdoor issues is that the report is a run-up to someone in the General Assembly proposing a law banning such contests.
The HSUS was behind a recent, narrowly passed proclamation condemning predator hunting competition by Kalamazoo, Mich. County Commissioners and a ban in Ann Arbor on selling items made with fur.
DWR director Ryan Brown acknowledged intense animal rights organization interest in the topic. One DWR board member, Tom Sadler, a 2019 Region 4 appointee of Gov. Ralph Northam, is on record in a March 2021 edition of the “Mountain Journal” an online publication for which he is listed as the “national correspondent in Washington D.C.,” as stating, “Mark me down as against those practices…There is nothing sporting about it and it’s a perversion to call it hunting.”
The ‘Nuisance’ Designation
One public comment letter from the Animal Welfare Institute states: “Contests in Virginia predominantly target native carnivores...” That assertion appears ungrounded in fact. Brown stated in an email, “Based on what I know, coyotes are the predominant targeted species.”
This leads to the nagging rub in this, for me anyway. The Code of Virginia (29.1-100) legally designates coyotes as nuisance species. In most states where coyotes are classified as nuisances, accorded the same status as feral hogs, rats, starlings, nutria, kudzu and other undesirables, people can shoot, trap or kill them any way possible short of napalm and hellfire missiles.
Feral hogs wreak incredible damage on the environment, demolishing crops, eating eggs of ground-nesting birds, causing soil erosion. They’re shot by the thousands from helicopters in Texas. If feral hogs were across the Virginia landscape as much as coyotes, would DWR be saying, “No contests with bonuses for killing the most hogs?” Doubtful.
The law allows Virginia landowners to trap or shoot furbearing animals on their own land year-round if the animals are causing crop or property damage, or posing a threat to human health or safety, or otherwise causing a nuisance.
Harvest limits are set on deer, turkey and many fish, for example, because the government considers those species valued public resources. Contrast that with Eastern coyotes, a non-native, invasive species who prey extensively on desired game animals and kill or drive away smaller, native furbearers, such as foxes. Most ranchers and homeowners who support predator contests ask for intensive control to protect livestock and domestic animals.
Emphasis on ‘Optics’
Brown states: “Our goal is to preserve predator hunting and opportunities for predator management in Virginia. This includes the current overall approach to coyote control methods and abilities to address agricultural and other landowner concerns through various available means.”
Brown earlier stated: “The narrower topic of debate among hunters seems to be whether the optics of more than nominal financial benefits for these contests is in the long-term best interest of predator hunting.”
“Optics”—a fashionable term relating to public perception—drives a lot of public policy these days. Nobody does optics better than antihunting organizations. Even before social media arose, these groups orchestrated optics wars, using espionage in searching for perfect images, videos or anecdotes to shock and drive funding.
Granted, some people who participate in predator contests post things on social media that might turn off nonhunters while fueling antihunters. They should knock it off. But neither should state fish and wildlife agencies appear be aiding the antis.
A couple of images used by DWR in its proposal, now part of the public record, showed a small trailer with dead red foxes. Another had a larger trailer with coyotes. Missing was the point that these animals were being readied for removal by fur buyers.
Money can incentivize unethical or illegal activity, such as (hypothetically) moving trapped coyotes to help ensure ready supplies for contests or placing them in “fox pens” to train dogs. How do you think the invasive northern snakehead fish materialized in Virginia’s tidal tributaries? Make a prize substantial enough in a big buck contest and some poachers will shoot deer at night or over bait to cash in.
Brown said this issue has been discussed by legislatures and state fish and wildlife agencies in other states, including Maryland, in recent years. “I believe that if it was not considered by our staff and board, we would have been likely to see legislative proposals in the future regardless,” Brown said.
“Optics” have multiple vantage points. Yes, perceptions of hunters by nonhunters may be affected by the optics of a predator-hunting contest. Anecdotally though, the optics for many hunters, and the rural landowners and ranchers who want coyote nuisance control operations is that actions such as the proposed regulation was akin to DWR playing footsie with groups like HSUS, seemingly, taking cues from staunch liberal states such as Vermont and Massachusetts and the West Coasters.