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The New West: Montana Sen. Mike Phillips plans to draft bill to outlaw predator derbies

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CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Is it ethical to chase down wildlife with snowmobiles and ATVs, running animals to the point of exhaustion? If you pursued a big game animal—an elk, moose, deer or pronghorn—you could face arrest or fine.

In Wyoming, across the entire state, you can even run over coyotes with your machines. In four-fifths of the state, you can do it with wolves, too. Legally.

That’s because Wyoming classifies coyotes and wolves as “predators” and it allows for their taking, especially if you are on private land, any time of day, by any means, and for no reason. They don’t even have to have been suspected of killing livestock or accused of taking a toll on big game animals.

It’s part of a mentality toward these canids that reaches into the earliest days of the 19th century frontier.

Across all of the West, including Montana, it’s open season on coyotes. In recent years, events called “coyote derbies” have proliferated. Essentially, the events reward hunters who kill the most predators, the largest, and sometimes for the most pounds, of animals killed. Such tournaments reward participants with cash prizes and trophies such as belt buckles.

Not long ago, for a story that appeared in Mountain Journal, I interviewed the former and active chairs of three state wildlife commissions, as well as an authority on ethical hunting and a spokesman from the Missoula-based Boone and Crockett Club. To a person, and they all hunt, they said that using vehicles to aggressively stalk wildlife violates ethical fair chase principles. And they said that predator derbies are not in concert with the principles of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

Most of all, they say such behavior is giving hunting a bad reputation. Gary Wolfe, a former wildlife commissioner in Montana, said that as hunter numbers decline nationally, bad personal conduct on the part of some individuals can turn a non-hunter into becoming an anti-hunter.

State Sen. Mike Phillips of Bozeman, also a hunter and carnivore biologist, plans to introduce a bill in the 2019 session of the Montana legislature that would outlaw predator-killing derbies. And he is thinking of drafting a companion bill that would prohibit people from being able to chase animals on public land with vehicles.

While some reading this might claim that such activity does not occur, social media and platforms such as YouTube, have videos and photographs of people using vehicles to chase animals. Phillips says that coyotes, the wild canids native only to North America, are intelligent, iconic animals worthy of reverence and professional management, the same as any other creature.

He isn’t opposed to hunting or trapping of coyotes, but Phillips says all wildlife, which is held in the public trust, is worthy of being treated in a humane way.

“If you are going to remove wolves or coyotes because there are identifiable problems, OK, do it if it’s necessary, but be strategic. Predator killing contests turn that on its head. When is needless, thoughtless killing ever justified?” Phillips said.

“I find its rationalization by those who claim to support professional wildlife management most curious,” he continued. “I would suppose that most of the people who participate in these contests of slaughter would consider themselves to be people of faith. What God worth worshipping would find it acceptable for His or Her followers to kill Her creation needlessly, senselessly and often out of hatred? Are these contests indicative of the values we want to be emulating for our kids?”

Phillips says he’s “old school” when it comes to hunting and finds the rise of popularity in varmint hunting, and making a spectacle of it on social media, to be disgusting.

“If you want to celebrate your prowess as an expert marksman shooting from several hundred yards, then set up dummy targets; don’t use live animals,” he said.

He doubts that few prairie dog gunners realize that the animals, along with bison, are keystone species, the foundations for more than 140 different animals important to biodiversity on the American prairie. “They have no idea what they are destroying, and they don’t care,” Phillips said. “To them, it’s just target practice.”

Looking south, Phillips said the least Wyoming could do with wolves is make them a game species across the entire state, sell licenses to support scientific research into animal populations the same way it does with elk, deer, pronghorn and other species.

“Most of these guys—and most of them are guys, I would imagine—who ride snowmobiles to kill these animals, or shoot prairie dogs to see the blood spray, go to church on Sunday,” Phillips said. “My lord, do they want to be a person standing at the pearly gates seeking their entrance and having to argue with God about their decision to treat these animals with such cruelty and no rational justification to back it up?”

Todd Wilkinson is founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal ( and a correspondent for National Geographic. He also is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at

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