MADISON, Wis. – As the sun begins to set this weekend in northern Wisconsin, hunters will start to gather at Main Street Ed's in the small town of Argonne, coyote carcasses in tow. Some will only have one; others could bring in a half-dozen or more.
After a weigh-in at the tavern, hunters will take home prizes for the largest and smallest coyotes, as well as for the most killed. Also-rans will still have a shot at the gun raffle, meat raffle or door prizes.
Coyote-hunting contests aren't unusual around the country, and in Wisconsin, any season is open and legal season on the animals. Supporters say such hunts help control the coyote population. But they're facing a growing backlash from conservationists and wildlife lovers, who compare them to cockfighting and dogfighting and are pushing to ban the contests.
"This is senseless and it's bloodlust and it's not about conservation, it's basically about using living targets," said Melissa Smith, executive director of Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf, which fears protected wolves will be accidentally killed by coyote hunters. "We're hunters, we really feel like this gives hunters a bad name that do things ethically."
In 2014, California officials banned coyote hunting contests that offer prizes after a push from such conservation groups as Project Coyote and Center of Biological Diversity. In other states, like Idaho and Oregon, lawsuits from conservation groups have stopped or downsized popular hunts. An online petition is circulating to halt Saturday's event in Wisconsin.
At least 80 formal coyote hunting contests and tournaments took place in 23 states over the past year, according to the Coyote Contest website, which lists such events. Others are not listed, like the one taking place in Argonne.
The hunts can end with upward of 100 coyotes killed. The three-day Coyote Craze Classic in Nebraska last year took in 173 coyotes, according to the event website.
"There's so many coyotes, there's so many predators in the woods here that are knocking down our deer," said John Aschenbrenner, a Forest County delegate to the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, an elected body that advises the Natural Resources Board and Department of Natural Resources.
Hunters typically kill anywhere from one or two coyotes to more than a dozen in these contests. Most states have no bag limit on coyotes. Hunters with the highest kill count, the mangiest kill or the largest or smallest take home cash, belt buckles, hunting gear or other prizes. Some contests ban hunting with dogs; others encourage it.
Saturday's contest includes a category for hound hunters and one for hunters who attract coyotes with calls. Argonne Town Board Chairman Don LeMaster and contest organizer Josh Vollmar did not return calls for comment.
"It's a very disturbing trend," said Center of Biological Diversity conservation advocate Michael Robinson. "It's about body counts and it reduces living animals, living beings, it reduces them to a score."
Conservationists argue that the killing doesn't effectively manage coyote populations and can even lead to increased reproduction rates. They also are concerned hunters could confuse coyotes with wolves. Robinson said at least 19 endangered wolves have been shot and killed since 2001 by hunters who said they thought they were coyotes.
Department of Natural Resources conservation warden supervisor David Walz said they haven't seen any more wolves being shot during coyote hunts than any other time hunters are out.
Camilla Fox, executive director of Project Coyote, a nonprofit trying to change negative attitudes toward coyotes, thinks such events will ultimately be banned, like cockfighting and dogfighting. But she said it will be a state-by-state fight.
"The base component here is that killing an animal for a prize or a trophy is ethically indefensible," Fox said, "and I think a lot more wildlife agencies understand that and they recognize that this is something they have to address."