This week, a convention of predator hunters is gathering in Tucson. The group, called Predator Masters, hunts such animals as coyotes and raccoon and has drawn national criticism for what critics say amount to killing contests. The group disputes that term and says it isn’t planning an organized hunt during the convention. Still, controversy surrounding the sport remains.
It’s hard to tell the difference between an actual coyote’s howl and the plaintive yell longtime hunter Rich Higgins can make with one of his many breath-powered calling devices.
“I truly believe that humans are hard-wired, genetically, as hunter gatherers,” he said, after showing off a few of the cries. “So we’re just being true to our nature.”
Higgins is the president of Arizona Predator Callers, one of the many organizations in the state that legally hunts predators like coyotes on public land. He said it isn’t so much about killing, as it about everything else involved with the sport he loves.
“Everything from building your own calls and your own howlers, learning the behavior of that animal, so you can exploit its vulnerabilities,” he said. “All of this is fascinating to us.”
And that’s the real point, he added, of what some people call “killing contests.” That’s when a group like his tries to kill as many coyotes as they can in a certain period of time. The reality is that most hunters don’t even bag a coyote, Higgins said. It’s more about hanging out with people who also enjoy the thrill of the hunt.
“It’s an incredible experience,” he said. “And becomes addicting.”
That doesn’t exactly comfort predator hunting opponents, who say it’s a waste to kill animals without using them for food or fur. Sandy Bahr is the president of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. Her organization is not against all hunting, she said, but with some predator hunters, “there is this attitude, which is pretty disrespectful of the animals, that ‘we’ll just go out and kill as many as possible.’”
Even if you take away the emotional side of this, Bahr said there could be real consequences from this kind of hunting. If the coyote population dips, there could be a large spike, followed by a crash, of prey species that coyotes usually keep in check. On the other hand, coyotes could actually increase in number.
The more they feel threatened, “the more they’ll have larger litters,” she said. “They’ll breed earlier, they actually respond by doing more to build the population.”
But the Arizona Game and Fish Department sees it differently, including Jim Paxon, special assistant to the director.
“Under no circumstances and in geographic area, have hunters made a dent in the coyote population,” he said.
He said there are an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 coyotes in the state. Game and Fish attempted to regulate hunting contests about 15 years ago, without success. But Paxon said the department doesn’t take an official stance now. Instead, it enforces current rules. Those allow people with valid hunting licenses to kill as many coyotes as they want.
“So, it’s recognized that coyote hunting is a legitimate activity for hunters and sportsmen,” Paxon said.
But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy, even for a seasoned predator hunter like Rich Higgins.
“I always have a tinge of regret. Always, always, always,” Higgins said. “And sometimes, when it becomes a little bit strong, I will pick up my camera only.”
In his heart, Higgins said, he is a hunter. And that’s regardless of whether he’s hunting coyotes with a lens — or a rifle.