Coyote hunting season never ends in New Hampshire – and neither does the debate

The debate over coyote hunting regulations returns regularly to the state Legislature and Fish and Game Commission. (Courtesy of Kees Hollemans & Iris van Noort)

The debate over coyote hunting regulations returns regularly to the state Legislature and Fish and Game Commission. (Courtesy of Kees Hollemans & Iris van Noort) Courtesy Kees Hollemans and Iris van Noort

By HADLEY BARNDOLLAR

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 02-23-2024 8:49 PM

Chris Schadler considers coyotes to be “the most persecuted carnivore in North America.”

When talking about the wild canids, it’s as though she’s standing up for a long-vilified, misunderstood creature — one that’s persevered with resilience and adaptation.

Many in New Hampshire call Schadler, an ecologist and wildlife educator who lives in Webster, “the coyote expert” or “coyote lady.” For her, these animals are gorgeous and irrepressible, strong predators with fur coats of gray, brown and tawny that humans can learn to respect and live alongside peacefully — in spite of a perceived viciousness.

“Coyotes suffer on the slur of being a varmint and a cur, and it’s so undeserved,” she said. “They’re just like any other creature making its living in a world that is increasingly difficult to survive in. And yet the coyote thrives. What’s not admirable about that?”

Eric Stohl feels much differently: If the coyote is the most persecuted carnivore, it’s because it deserves to be. The Colebrook resident and chair of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Commission calls them “the most vicious killer we have out there.”

“They are quite the killing machine,” he said.

This debate isn’t new. It returns regularly to the state Legislature and Fish and Game Commission in the context of hunting regulations, or lack thereof, for one of the state’s more divisive — and some say misunderstood — animals.

In New Hampshire, coyotes are the only fur-bearing animal for which there is an open hunting season — meaning they can be shot any day of the year, as well as at night January through March, and their killing by firearm doesn’t have to be reported to Fish and Game.

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Coyotes are often hunted as a form of “pest management” — to reduce predation of livestock and pets — while others are wanted for their pelts, which typically sell for between $20 and $40 and can be used for jackets, coats and collar accents.

For people in Schadler’s camp, they’d at least like to see the hunting season closed while coyotes are rearing their pups, typically April through July. That was the goal of a bill introduced this legislative session by Rep. Ellen Read, a Newmarket Democrat. It died a quick death — the House Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee deemed it “inexpedient to legislate” by a vote of 14-5.

Many lawmakers on the committee shared Stohl’s opinions, viewing the open hunting season as a way to manage a species they see as posing a threat to farm animals, pets, deer and sometimes, humans. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, coyotes reportedly kill more than 300,000 livestock annually. That belief, as well as a sentiment that coyotes are “multiplying,” has prevailed over years of debate — in front of the Legislature when bills come forward, and before the Fish and Game Commission in the form of petitions and during rulemaking discussions.

“The commission has always been, I’m pretty sure, unanimous every time it’s been in front of us, at least three or four times over the last seven years,” Stohl said. “It seems like they just keep bringing it back and bringing it back.”

Meanwhile, Schadler and other wildlife advocates view the ability for coyotes to birth and raise their pups without the chance they’ll be hunted as a reasonable and humane protection for the Fish and Game Commission to consider. “By their own statute, they are supposed to listen to the public and basically conserve these animals for the public, not just for hunters,” Schadler said. “I’m going to persist. I’ve been doing this for 35 years. As long as the bias against this animal dominates the conversation, as long as the rulemakers carry with them that bias against this creature, it doesn’t stand a chance at being treated fairly.”

A dearth of data

For all of the impassioned opinions about them, there isn’t a lot known statistically about coyotes in New Hampshire.

While trappers have to report coyote kills to Fish and Game during their five-month trapping season, hunters using firearms don’t, meaning the data is limited on how many are killed per year and, more broadly, just how many are out there. Without offering specific numbers, Fish and Game biologists have said the state’s population has remained “stable.” Educated guesses put it between 4,500 to 5,000.

Earlier this month, lawmakers heard testimony on House Bill 1100 and effectively killed it within the same day. There wasn’t an open seat during the Feb. 6 public hearing, where people spoke both for and against closing the coyote hunting season during the 22 weeks the animals are raising their young each year. Read, the prime sponsor who also introduced a similar bill in 2019, testified that “aside from the cruelty of depriving the young who cannot fend for themselves,” a biological response was at the heart of her proposal: Coyotes engage in “responsive reproduction,” which means if a pack experiences a disruption or significant loss, they’ll respond accordingly by producing larger and sometimes more frequent litters.

In addition, pups whose parents are killed, she testified, often become the “nuisance coyotes” who engage in conflict with humans.

When Schadler refers to coyotes as the most persecuted carnivore on this continent, she’s partly pointing to the federal government’s longtime participation in coyote killing. Data shows 63,965 coyotes were killed in 2021 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services. Up until last fall, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management was utilizing spring-loaded traps that dispersed cyanide powder to kill coyotes.

Schadler, who is the New Hampshire and Vermont representative for the national nonprofit Project Coyote, contends that indiscriminately hunting coyotes is antithetical to controlling the population because of how they biologically respond. She attributed the coyote’s growth across the U.S., in Canada and down in South America to the fact that they are so intensively hunted.

“Hunting coyotes, according to science, has never made any sense,” she said.

Joan O’Brien, an Amherst resident who serves on the board of the New Hampshire Animal Rights League, told lawmakers about a spring evening shortly after dusk when she heard distressed calls from a young animal. She went outdoors to investigate on the conservation land that abuts her property. What O’Brien found in the woods was a speaker sitting on a log playing the sounds of coyote pups and to the right were two hunters in a tree stand.

She was shaken by the encounter and what she perceived to be shooting coyotes “for fun.”

David Minton, a deer hunter from Warner, said he “welcomes the coyote.” He lamented the ongoing loss of biodiversity. Coyotes have essentially replaced the wolf and mountain lion in New Hampshire, he said, and “we need a wild predator to make the system function as it is supposed to.”

Coyotes eat a variety of different prey based on what’s available, the most common being small mammals like rodents. They also eat birds, amphibians and animal carcasses and sometimes switch to larger prey such as deer.

Looking at New Hampshire’s neighbors, both Vermont and Maine also have open coyote hunting seasons, while Massachusetts closes the season between March and October. In December, Vermont did adopt new regulations that tighten rules for hunting coyotes with dogs. A Senate bill in New Hampshire that would have prohibited using dogs to hunt coyotes did not receive a committee recommendation earlier this month.

Those who oppose making changes to the Granite State’s coyote hunting season feel strongly that the Legislature shouldn’t put its hands in wildlife management — they want season-setting abilities to remain with the Fish and Game Commission, based on recommendations by the agency’s biologists.

“When our fisher population was in trouble, our department adjusted that season,” said Fred Bird, assistant manager of Northeastern states for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “They were able to do that in real time.”

Jim Morse, president of the New Hampshire Wildlife Federation, a hunting and fishing member organization, said taking season-setting out of Fish and Game’s hands would set a “dangerous precedent.”

Others feel that coyotes specifically are a big enough issue to warrant an open hunting season.

“I’ve had a lot of personal experience with coyotes, and I just don’t see no reason not to hunt them for that time,” said John Close, a former Republican House member from Epsom, who called the animal a “major, major problem” that is “multiplying in different areas of the country.”

What a Fish and Game biologist says

Dan Bergeron is a biologist with Fish and Game, specifically chief of its wildlife division. He said the conversation around coyotes and other fur-bearing animals is “always controversial.”

When it comes to setting hunting seasons, the main criteria taken into account is if the population can be sustainably harvested — often meaning they have high reproductive potential and are not limited by habitat, Bergeron said. Once a species is “managed,” or subject to more restrictions by Fish and Game, the department then starts to consider other factors. But so far, coyotes haven’t crossed that initial threshold.

While Bergeron discounted claims that the state’s coyote population is multiplying, saying it has remained “largely stable” over the last 30 years, that stability is also ” an indication that current season structures are not having a negative impact on the population as a whole.”

Based on public feedback during rulemaking processes, Bergeron said Fish and Game is considering a mandatory registration process for all fur-bearing species that are taken by hunting. Virtually all of the information the department currently has in terms of tracking these populations comes from an annual trapping report, which doesn’t include any takings by firearm.

In addition, the department is in the midst of working with the University of New Hampshire to come up with additional ways to index the coyote population. Bergeron implored lawmakers to let Fish and Game keep its rulemaking authority on season-setting in light of these ongoing efforts.

Rep. Damond Ford, a Manchester Democrat and member of the House Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee, queried if Fish and Game has any intention at all to explore rulemaking around coyotes.

“(You are saying), ‘Leave it to us to set the rules,’ but here we are, 10th year of the same bill coming forth,” he said. “Either the commissioners and Fish and Game Department (don’t) believe there should be a rule on coyotes, or you’re just choosing not to set a rule.”

In response, Bergeron said: “It’s difficult to make those decisions when you’re really not doing it for a biological reason. Because, again, we have no reason to believe the coyote population is in jeopardy from a population-level perspective.”