“Wild Dog of the West”
Missoula Independent, June 22-29, 2000
by Bill Fanning
KILLING COYOTE, a movie by Missoula filmmaker Doug Hawes-Davis, is a startling documentary that gracefully manages to neither preach about animal rights, nor avoid the difficult questions that surround the coyote in the West. Rather, the film vividly shows man’s relationship with this remarkable animal, canis latrans. Although much historical and biological data is provide in interviews with biologists and animals control agents, the central thread of the movie concerns the National Coyote Calling Championships in Rawlins, Wyoming. Calling to coyotes connotes a certain affinity and understanding of these animals. But what is probably hard to swallow for most viewers is that these 72 two-man teams - who compete to see how many coyotes they can call in and kill in two days - understand these animals far better than your average Discovery Channel wildlife enthusiast. At the Championships this year, the “body count” was 202; the winning team took 11 animals, and walked off with over $5000.
Quantitative sport killing of animals for cash prizes is nothing new to accomplished vermin filmmaker Hawes-Davis, whose 1998 Varmints, told a similar story about the black-tailed prairie dog. But, in speaking with Hawes-Davis, who filmed the coyote hunters in the field, it becomes clear that, as a hunter himself, he has a certain respect for the skills of the men involved. He says that not anyone can go out, locate and kill a coyote; it takes a skilled hunter who knows the mentality and habitat of his prey. Certainly the hunters interviewed all agree, saying that they would much rather hunt coyote than bears of mountain lions precisely because nothing else is quite as wiley; presumably, there is also the added benefit of not having to fool around with permits, season dates, licenses, etc. The sporting aspects of the contest even attract a wandering Englishman, hooded like a camouflaged executioner who has been traveling around the West entering these hunts. And, admittedly it is a curious sight to see a man using all his predatory sophistication - plus camouflage, leg-hold traps, exploding cyanide canisters, helicopters, airplanes, rifles, shotguns, vocal and taped coyote calls with a speaker - to track and kill a 35-pound wild dog.
But anyone who lives in the West today must be cognizant of the way that most of our laws, policies, attitudes, and myths about the coyote have been shaped by livestock producers. To live in the West is to understand how killing vermin like coyotes and prairie dogs is doing your duty in a practically Hegelian sense. And because these hunters see themselves as defenders of cows and sheep, killing a coyote is actually a virtuous act in the ongoing crusade for the preservation of a waning lifestyle. Hawes-Davis does a good job of interviewing ranchers who give a wide spectrum of ideas on coyotes and coyote control. (And look for the lone Montana rancher who comes out far ahead of the pack on his live-and-let-live philosophy.)
Wildlife Services, formerly and less metaphorically known as Animal Damage Control, the government agency founded to protect ranchers from livestock losses, does much of the day-to-day trapping, shooting and poisoning of coyotes at farmers’ and ranchers’ requests - in 1997 they reported 83,000 coyotes killed. Despite what amounts to a full-scale war against the coyote, the anecdotal evidence of old ranchers who have seen an increase in coyote numbers during their lifetimes points to one of nature’s great ironies which is superbly documented in this film; namely, the distinct possibility that all this coyote control is just making the problem worse. Coyote populations are amazingly resilient, as one of the several biologists interviewed explains, and coyotes react to this sort of depredation in several remarkable ways. Generally, only on-third of the available females are actually breeding in any given population, and when the pack comes under stress, the other females can begin breeding larger litters, more frequently and at a younger age. This all adds up to this startling fact: killing off 30-40 percent of coyotes in a pack could actually increase the number of lambs or calves killed. Furthermore, we have caused this problem by creating more open spaces, killing off the wolves and turning our domesticated animals loose into predator-filled arid landscapes where they cannot enjoy the natural protection of a herd. Since European man arrived in North America, coyotes have proliferated by a factor of three.
Ultimately, what makes KILLING COYOTE transcend the genre of nature film is the fact that the coyote is such a symbol of the West and of our competition with other species for resources. For some, the coyote is a symbol of openness and freedom, and for others, the coyote reinforces the image of nature “red in tooth and claw.” Hawes-Davis, who uses a variety of techniques including Super 8 and black and white to “soften the images” of dead coyotes being measured at the checkpoint, said that his intent was “not character assasination, or to make anyone look bad, but rather to show the sort of activities that our society is engaging in.” The questions raised by this film are not easily answered, and in 50 years this sort of activity may well be judged typical of our ambivalent society that, having erased them from the plains, still years for a home where the buffalo roam.