VT Coyote 'derbies' face court challenge

Barton Chronicle
Posted 12.05.06

BARTON, VT | Coyote hunting in Vermont is facing challenges in the court and in the court of public opinion.

Even though all DNA test results are not yet back on a 91-pound wolf-like animal shot recently in Troy, the incident has sparked comment from an environmental group on coyote hunting laws.

The practice of coyote derbies is being challenged in Washington Superior Court and discussed by the Fish and Wildlife Board.

A group calling themselves Vermonters for Safe Hunting And Wildlife Diversity has filed a lawsuit against the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Fish and Wildlife Board.

The lawsuit says the board should stop coyote hunting contests, commonly called derbies. The board discussed the possibility recently, but decided not to stop the derbies.

Currently it's open season on coyotes all year long.

"It's the only animal that doesn't have a season," said Walt Driscoll of Island Pond, who is a member of the Fish and Wildlife Board.

Mr. Driscoll and board member Craig Lefevre of Morgan voted at a board meeting in October in favor of closing coyote hunting during the summer. But they were outvoted, Mr. Driscoll said.

"The coyotes got a name," he said. "Some people on the board considered them an invasive species."

He said coyotes have flourished because they fill a niche in the food chain, and they are highly adaptable. If too much pressure is put on the coyote population, remaining coyotes respond by producing more pups.

"You could actually increase the population," Mr. Driscoll said. "Instead of having two or three pups, they'll have eight or ten."

Mr. Driscoll believes that they should be left alone during the summer.

"The fur is useless until you get into the fall." He said there is a law on the books that allows farmers to shoot coyotes if they are harming the farmers' domestic animals, and anyone can take a coyote if he or she feels threatened by that animal. The person is required to call a fish and wildlife warden afterwards. A law closing hunting in summer would not change that law, he said.

Mr. Driscoll is not a big fan of coyote derbies. But he said the board did not outlaw them because it would be a first step in banning other hunting and fishing tournaments.

Mr. Driscoll was disappointed in the board's lack of action on the season.

"I think it's the board's responsibility," he said.

The animal shot in Troy on October 1 was shot by a dairy farmer protecting calves. The coyote was so large - 91 pounds - that state and federal Fish and Wildlife officials have taken DNA samples and sent them to laboratories to see if the animal was actually a wolf or part wolf. Coyotes are usually more like 50 pounds.

Peggy Struhsacker of the National Wildlife Federation said recently that eastern coyotes are such a "genetic mishmash" that they are sometimes called "canis soupus."

Roland Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum in Albany, New York, has been studying the genetics of eastern coyotes recently. He doesn't have answers yet, just questions.

"Basically it's an old question, what exactly is the eastern coyote?" he said. He said he is studying DNA sample of coyotes recently killed, and he is also interested in finding museum specimens or mounted animals shot 50 or 80 years ago. If anyone has such a specimen, Mr. Kays would love to hear about it.

The animal shot in Troy sparked an opinion article published in Visions, the Forest Watch newsletter, calling for a change in the law.

The article says if tests show it was a wolf, the man who shot it probably won't be prosecuted because he will say it was a case of mistaken identity.

"Whether this particular animal is ultimately determined to be a wolf, the incident points out the urgent need to correct the loophole in Vermont law that threatens every future wolf that may venture into the state," wrote Mollie Matteson, deputy director of Forest Watch.

"The state must not endanger naturally returning wild wolves by giving hunters an excuse to shoot them and claim ignorance. The state must end its policy of allowing coyotes to be killed 24/7, 365 days a year, an inhumane and unethical wildlife management 'policy' in any case."

Ron Regan, director of wildlife for the Fish and Wildlife Department, said the department has received some preliminary results back from one of the labs, but the other two have not reported back.

"We're still waiting," he said. "We don't have any control over it either."

Mr. Regan said due to the lawsuit, he is not able to comment on his opinion about coyote derbies. He said the state estimates there are between 4500 and 8000 coyotes in Vermont, based on some University of Vermont research on home range size. A family of coyotes has a typical range of about 15 square miles, and the estimate is based on that.

"I think it's safe to say coyotes thrive here," he said.

The complaint in the lawsuit says the Fish and Wildlife Board's decision to allow coyote derbies to continue was "not supported by substantial evidence and was an arbitrary and capricious abuse of its discretion. In fact, the overwhelming weight of the evidence before the Board at the time of the denial supported the granting of the request."

The complaint mentions in particular exhibits that came from the files of the Fish and Wildlife Department. The complaint says the suit was filed after lack of action by the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, which held a hearing in March but deferred any action pending the rule making process by the Fish and Wildlife Board, with agreement by the department.

The suit says the board's decision was "contrary to its mission which mandates the conservation of wildlife for the people of Vermont and requires that the integrity, diversity and vitality of all natural systems be protected."

The board and department have filed a motion to dismiss, saying the plaintiff lacks standing to be able to sue. Legal standing includes a specific injury. The motion quotes a U.S. Supreme Court case called Lujan:

"The impact on the plaintiff in these cases is 'plainly undifferentiated and common to all members of the public," says the motion. "The Court explained that under the Constitution it was the role of the executive and legislative branches - the 'political branches' - not the courts, to deal with these claims."

"Plaintiff's suggestion that the Court order the Board to adopt a rule banning coyote contests would raise fatal separation-of-powers concerns. The VAPA [Vermont Administrative Procedure Act] sets out the process necessary for an executive agency to adopt a rule. Numerous steps, including publications and public comment periods, are required. A Court may not short circuit that process and require the Board to adopt any particular rule."

Stephen Hill, the attorney for the state, said the plaintiffs have until December 20 to respond to the motion. He does not expect a hearing until after the holidays

Home | Features | Fiction | Poetry | Columns | Opinion
Copyright © Bethany M. Dunbar 2006 /Log Cabin Chronicles 12.06