Fur prices may be down, but a single bobcat earned three hunters more than $48,000 last February. Kelby Frizzell, Colby Frizzell, and Clay Allen won the West Texas Big Bobcat Contest (WTBBC) with a bobcat that weighed 33 pounds, 14 ounces, the heaviest among 689 teams.
Thanks in part to increasing payouts, hunting contests like the WTBBC have grown popular in recent years. It drew 19 teams in 2008, the event’s first year. Nearly 2,000 teams participated in three 2019 WTBBC events. Organizers awarded $393,400 in prizes, including a record $48,230 for the heaviest bobcat.
If anti-hunting organizations get their way, those and countless other contests may be living on borrowed time. That’s because a growing number of states have banned or are attempting to ban various hunting contests. California was first, making it illegal to offer prizes or rewards for killing predators in 2014. Vermont banned them in 2018.
In January, New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands Stephanie Garcia Richard signed an executive order banning hunting contest-related activities on nine million acres of state trust land. Bills to ban coyote contests are working their way through at least six state legislatures, including New Mexico.
“A number of these bills don’t just single out predator hunting contests,” said Brian Lynn, Sportsmen’s Alliance vice president of Communications and Marketing. “A few include any event that involves wildlife and prizes, even if the prize is some dog food or a ribbon or is just for entertainment, as Oregon’s bill says. That means such things as dog trials and even big buck contests could be banned.”
The primary focus of the various bills is on predator contests, though, thanks to efforts by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Project Coyote, among other anti-hunting groups. HSUS has spent more than $27 million since 1999 on a variety of domestic animal and wildlife-related issues, including anti-hunting legislation.
“They are very organized, and they have a lot of money and lawyers,” said James Schmidt, who ran the World Championship Coyote Calling Contest for four years. “And they do a very good job of stirring up emotions and distorting facts. They have been pretty successful in their efforts to ban predator contests.”
It isn’t just anti-hunters who are lining up to condemn these events. The Wildlife Society, the largest association of professional wildlife biologists, adopted a position statement that more or less opposes predator contests. It “discourages contests that adversely affect the wildlife resource or the public appreciation of wildlife resources” and “recognize(s) that while species killed in contests can be legally killed in most states, making a contest of it may undermine the public’s view of ethical hunting.”
Although they have grown in popularity in recent years, predator contests aren’t new. Organized events have been taking place since the early 1900s.
“These contests are nothing more than just a bunch of guys getting together to go hunting,” said Schmidt. “It’s no different than you and a few of your buddies making a friendly bet over first, biggest, or most, except there are more people and the prizes are bigger. In most cases, all the entry fees are paid back to the hunters, minus expenses. No one I know is making any money off the contests they organize.”
Predator tournaments range from one-day fundraising events for a local cause to multi-day, multi-state, invitation-only contests that draw hunters from all over the country. The goals are typically the same: Whoever shoots the most or the biggest wins.
Why or how they are held doesn’t matter to anti-hunting groups. They have mobilized to protest small events and large events alike. Even the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, whose membership consists largely of hunters and anglers, supports a statewide ban on contests. Executive Director Jesse Deubel said they violate at least two tenets of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. The Model, as the conservation community calls it, includes seven principles that dictate wildlife management and use in North America. It is widely accepted as the standard for all management decisions.
“The first one is that wildlife should not be used for commercial purposes,” said Deubel. “When we award prize money for killing animals, we violate that tenet.”
Lynn and Schmidt, however, wonder why such things as fishing tournaments, big-buck contests, and even hunting guides aren’t scrutinized the same way predator events are. All of them put a value on a fish or an animal, and money is exchanged in attempt to catch or kill fish and game.
“The North American Model also states that wildlife can only be taken for a legitimate purpose,” added Deubel. “That’s not what happens with these contests. Hunters rarely take the hides and utilize them. In some cases, they take the dead coyotes into the country and dump the carcasses.”
And that leads to the primary reason he and his organization came out against these events: public perception. A few well-publicized incidents led to widespread outrage from the non-hunting public. In one, dozens of coyotes were dumped on a rural New Mexico road after a contest in early 2019. The animals’ mouths were taped shut and a number was written on the tape, suggesting the coyotes were killed during a contest hunt.
“This doesn’t help our image,” said Deubel. “Our support and the future of hunting in general depend on the 95 percent of the public that does not hunt or have an opinion on it one way or another. If these coyotes were being utilized, we may not be in this situation.”
Some states do have laws that require parts of coyotes to be used, but many don’t. Coyotes are typically not considered a game animal and therefore don’t fall under wanton waste regulations. However, Schmidt said a fur buyer was often on site to buy carcasses after his events.
“We encourage our participants to utilize the animals they take,” he said. “That doesn’t always happen, but I don’t like to see anything wasted, either.”
Lynn acknowledged high-profile incidents of dumped carcasses, however rare, create a rash of negative publicity. The coyotes left on a New Mexico roadside helped embolden efforts to ban contests in that state. Instead of focusing on the contest itself, Lynn said outrage should be directed at the individuals responsible for dumping those coyotes.
“Do we blame all deer hunters for the guy who poaches a buck at night and then cuts the head off?” he asked. “Of course not. If laws were broken, we should hold those responsible accountable, not everyone who participates in the calling contest. If it is not illegal, we should be encouraging hunters to be more considerate and remember that our image and even the future of hunting is on the line.”
Most, if not all, contests, including the WCCC, require participants to follow all laws or face expulsion.
“If you didn’t tell us about a traffic ticket you got during our contest and we found out, you were permanently banned,” said Schmidt. “We just want to keep everyone honest for the sake of our event and for hunting in general. We don’t allow our contestants to post photos on social media, either. They always get used against us.”
Deubel said banning predator contests is actually one small, but important step in preserving the future of hunting. By eliminating the most inflammatory activities, the general public has less reason to be critical of all types of hunting.
That perspective troubled Lynn and Schmidt.
“Anti-hunters are attempting to eliminate hunting one small step at a time,” said Lynn. “We’ve seen bans or restrictions on trapping, bans on the use of hounds and bait for bears and lions, and bans on other types of hunting, all at the hands of the antis. They didn’t stop there and they aren’t stopping after they succeed in banning predator contests.”
Schmidt agreed and pointed to Vermont, where soon after contests were banned, efforts got underway to prohibit all coyote hunting. So far, those efforts haven’t garnered much legislative support. It may only be a matter of time.
“Hunters aren’t very well organized,” said Schmidt. “Worse, we don’t always stick together. If we may not agree with it, we are more willing to throw our fellow hunters under the bus. That seems to be what’s happening with calling contests.”