Reviews: Varmints and Killing Coyote

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2001:

Varmints and Killing Coyote
Produced & directed by Doug Hawes-Davis, High Plains Films
(P.O. Box 906, Missoula, MT 59807; telephone 406-543-6726; fax 406-728-9432;
e-mail <>; <>),
1998, 2000. 83 and 81 minutes; $35 each.
Targeted by the U.S. government in 1930 for total extermination, as scapegoats for the Dustbowl and collapsing wool prices, prairie dogs and coyotes might have taught underground and nocturnal survival tactics to the Viet Cong. Certainly the concept of “body count” as measure of military success seems to have evolved from the scorekeeping of prairie dog shoots and coyote killing contests. Before the U.S. took on prairie dogs and coyotes, with their uncanny ability to occupy land while remaining hidden, wars were measured in terms of territory held.

More than a quarter-century after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, however, after 20 years of “winning” body counts while losing hearts and minds, the war on prairie dogs and coyotes that began with the first westward movement of sodbusters and cowpokes is still underway. Only within the past few years have the hearts and minds of the American public begun to visibly shift toward the beleaguered rodents and amazingly resourceful wild canines. Both species have been found to have a basic vocabulary sufficient to tell others if a threat comes from the sky or the ground, in which direction, and whether a human seems to have a gun.

Heroes Pop Up

Each species has heroes, too, including sentries who sound the alarm sometimes at cost of their own lives and fathers who will expose themselves as decoys while mothers get the young under cover. Now they have some human defenders, as well–though it must be noted that the main purpose of the 11-state Black-tailed Prairie Dog Conservation Team is keeping prairie dogs off the federal Endangered Species list, so that hunters and ranchers can continue killing them. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found in February 2000 that black-tailed prairie dogs are eligible for listing, but deferred protection for at least one year, while the Colorado Division of Wildlife produced a study asserting that black-tailed prairie dogs occupy twice as much habitat as the Fish and Wildlife Service supposed.

As a purported show of good faith, C-DoW also prohibited prairie dog sport hunting in eastern Colorado, after September 1, but allowed landowners to continue shooting prairie dogs on their own property and exempted Gunnison, Richardson, and white-tailed prairie dogs. Establishing that a hunter actually could tell one from another at the usual long shooting distance will of course be almost impossible. Coyote-killers are even less restrained by law, but may now be more restrained by public opinion –leading to some rather bizarre attempts to rationalize traditional anti-coyote mayhem.


The village council of Corrales, New Mexico, on January 23 voted unanimously to continue trapping and “euthanizing” coyotes, after animal control officers and USDA Wildlife Services killed two in their first month of effort. Eleven-year-old Thomas Nichols, for one, was not fooled by the sanitized language. “I’m pleading with you that the practice of exterminating coyotes be stopped,” Nichols testified at a public hearing.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife in December 2000 designated the newly created Colorado Canyons National Recreation Area and Gunnison Gorge National Conservation area as sites for a 10-year, $2.6 million “research” project to find out if killing coyotes affects the resident mule deer herds. This came after a lawsuit brought by the Pikes Peak Wildlife Preservation Society twice delayed plans to kill coyotes near the Colorado Springs airport, ostensibly to protect air travelers. Yet no pilot had complained about coyotes there.

Echoing the C-DoW new-speak, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife called a January 2001 coyote killing contest in Vernal, Utah, the “First Annual Predator Control Survey.” The purpose of it, too, was said to be finding out if killing coyotes increases the abundance of mule deer–at taxpayer expense, as the Utah legislature in 2000 allocated $100,000 in matching funds for bounties on coyotes, even after Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and USDA Wildlife Services staff warned that killing coyotes for bounties would mainly just stimulate the survivors to raise larger litters.

Data emerging from the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in eastern Oregon indicates that leaving coyotes alone may be the best way to encourage prey species. Five years after legal action by the Predator Defense Institute and Oregon Natural Desert Association blocked a coyote cull that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said was needed to boost the Hart Mountain pronghorn herd, the herd in 2000 reached near record size, and rabbits too were in a high cycle.

Not long ago, killing coyotes in the name of protecting scarcer species tended to go unquestioned. But 30 people rallied by the Outer Cape Environmental Action Network didn’t buy a Fish and Wildlife Service claim last May that it was necessary to kill two adult coyotes, eight pups, and a skunk on behalf of the roseate terns, piping plovers, and 283 other bird species native to the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, a group of islands just off Cape
Excuses for killing coyotes have run short in South Texas, too, where no canine rabies has been found since September 1999, and none have ever been found north of the South Texas Oral Rabies Vaccination Program boundary. Air drops of Raboral vaccination pellets appear to have eradicated the only rabies outbreak on record for which coyotes were the primary vector.
Cases of coyotes killing livestock and free-roaming pets still tend to generate a hue-and-cry, but in Vancouver, British Columbia, public response was restrained even to a May 2000 biting incident involving a four-year-old girl who tried to pet a coyote, and a September incident in which a coyote sniffed an 18-month-old baby who was lying in grass in a park at dusk while his mother watched a soccer practice. Instead of pursuing a coyote purge, the Vancouver Park Board on November 19 voted unanimously to fund public education about coyotes, to be done by the Stanley Park Ecology Society.

In Marin County, Calif-ornia, the county board of supervisors meanwhile voted to end cooperation with USDA Wildlife Services, after noting that in 1999 Wildlife Services killed 14 coyotes and a dog to protect sheep–plus 95 non-target animals, including 24 badgers, 17 red foxes, 13 gray foxes, nine bobcats, eight racoons, and a skunk. The supervisors’ action was requested by Camilla Fox of the Animal Protection Institute and Suzanne Roy of In Defense of Animals.

The Videos…

One might conclude that Doug Hawes-Davis has produced Varmints and Killing Coyote just in time to assist similar activist efforts wherever prairie dogs and coyotes need help. Both Varmints and Killing Coyote include sequences of significant shock value, involving callous hunter behavior and animals dying lingering deaths. Displayed on the huge screens on all four sides of the SHARK Tiger vans, for instance, Hawes-Davis’ shots of spine-shotcoyotes staggering in circles should horrify anyone who ever loved a dog, or for that matter felt empathy with any suffering creature.

But the value in Varmints and Killing Coyote will almost all be in out-takes. Both are produced at entertainment length, yet both consist largely of repetitive interviews with “talking heads” who are not named until the end credits. Few people will want to sit through so much unrelievedly grim and redundant material–certainly not busy news media and public officials. Neither will public access cable time be available for anything so long at any hour attracting many viewers.

Hawes-Davis has also produced abridged versions of each video. The 23-minute versions may be just about right for activist groups and cable use. Otherwise, Varmints and Killing Coyote will have to be edited down to news clip-sized bits to use effectively, which will in turn require the users to make significant investments in time and equipment.

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