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Austin, Nevada

Two brothers shot pool on a cool October afternoon in the Silver State Saloon, located along the main drag of this former mining town, just down the street from a sign that reads “Prayer Spoken Here.” The eight-ball matches, waged over laughs and beers, weren’t really about billiards; the men were working on their hand to eye coordination, honing their hunting skills. Jesse Anson and his younger brother, Worth, were preparing for the next day’s contest against several dozen practiced marksmen in an animal-killing event.

Coyotes, to be exact. Canis latrans. Kill the most, win some money.

The brothers and their fellow sportsmen have practiced names for the animals: They call them “varmints,” “pests,” or “apex predators run amok.” But when they make their kills and lift their prizes by the tails, they call them “dogs.” Estimates of their population in Nevada run from about 50,000  to several times that.

Jesse, 35, and his brother are from Battle Mountain, 90 miles to the north, another struggling, blue-collar, central Nevada town. They’re miners — Worth, 22, does his job above ground, Jesse below. Their father taught them to hunt when they were kids.

“We’re Nevada boys,” Jesse said, lining up a corner shot. “This is what we do.”

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Coyote hunts are a fixture among rural outdoorsmen nationwide, a response to the animals’ perceived threat to livestock. In many states, coyotes are unprotected by wildlife laws, meaning they can be hunted without a license or bag limits. Some states, including Utah, Texas, Colorado, and South Dakota, pay coyote bounties.

As a result, a contest circuit has sprung up in 49 states. The events have names such as the Iowa Coyote Classic, Idaho Varmint Hunters Blast from the Past, and the Park County (Wyoming) Predator Palooza. And, on a recent weekend in Austin, the much-anticipated Coyote Derby, which drew hunters from as far away as Utah and Las Vegas.

Environmentalists and animal-rights groups have petitioned to halt what some call “killing for kicks.” In 2014, California became the first state to ban all wildlife killing contests, and similar efforts are being waged in Vermont, New Mexico, New York, and Oregon. In 2015, critics petitioned Nevada wildlife officials to prohibit the contests. Putting a tally on the number of animals taken in a day, they said, is the very definition of frivolous killing. The Nevada Wildlife Commission voted 7-1 to deny the petition.

Nevada has one of the nation’s most pronounced urban/rural splits, according to the 2010 Census. So the brothers know many urban residents view their activities as a senseless extermination and were reluctant to give detailed answers to questions about their tactics — using calls that mimic injured animals to lure out their prey, again and again, as many times as the daylight will allow — and motivations. “You’re calling out a wild animal, but you’re also getting out into the country and having fun,” Jesse said. “Out there, it’s all about good times and great friends.”

He was decked out in brown camouflage while Worth wore a black Jack Daniel’s T-shirt and blue jeans. At the registration table, a poster advertised an upcoming “Varmint Hunt” in nearby Carvers. Both said they could compete in a coyote-killing contest just about every weekend if they were willing to drive a few hours.

Each time he pulls the trigger in the contest, Jesse said, he’s helping the Nevada economy. “Every coyote we kill saves 13 calves a year,” he said. “This is ranching country. We’re helping save people’s livelihoods. All those people who criticize us, we call ’em Californians. Nobody should call this bad until they find out the true facts and go out and try it.” He even offered some advice to get started: “Go get yourself a little .22 and start shooting ground squirrels. They’re the biggest menace of all. After that, you’ll pretty much be hooked.”

 

Austin’s Coyote Derby has been held annually for more than 15 years. With its promotional poster showing a howling coyote in the crosshairs of a gunsight, the one-day hunt promised more than $6,000 in prize money. There were “big-dog” and “small-dog” competitions, and a “Calcutta” bracket that allowed teams to bet on each other, adding a wagering incentive similar to playing for “skins” on the golf course.

The chief organizer is Phil Marshall, a 65-year-old California construction company owner and rancher who spent much of his childhood in Austin, helping out at a general store his late grandparents ran. “Many of my relatives are buried here,” he said. Now Marshall and his family have purchased a half-dozen buildings along the main drag and staked a claim in the future of this community of about 200.

Marshall sees the hunts as a way to inject some energy into Austin’s flagging economy. “The purpose of the hunt isn’t just to kill a bunch of animals,” he said. “The contest brings people and commerce into town. In the slow months here, you might as well lock the doors and wait the winter out.”

Coyote contestants need a place to eat, drink, and regale one another before and after the hunt, and Marshall’s Silver State Saloon and restaurant are there to serve them. A sign at the bar reads: “Beer! Because No Great Story Ever Started with a Salad.”

The rules of the hunt are straightforward. Participants must show up at the bar to register on the night before the hunt, and return by 6 p.m. the following day to have their animals assessed and weighed. Hunters can take their prey from any county in Nevada. They can use calls and dogs to flush out the animals. No night hunting, no helicopters, no snowmobiles. Hunters are advised to stay off public land, but that rule is rarely enforced. A few entrants go it alone, some using a shotgun so they’re forced to get close to their prey. But most hunt in groups, and the really prolific killers use semi-automatic weapons, which Marshall’s older brother Kenny called the “fun gun of the hunt.”

Sitting at the bar, he described the various weapons used to take out coyotes. “Most guys use either an AR-15 with a scope or a .204 Ruger bolt-action rifle,” he said. “The high-velocity rounds go in real small, tears ’em up on the inside, and exit. They’re sure-kill rounds. You don’t want those coyotes walking away.”

But some hunters prefer to take home their pelts. “In that case, they use the .17 Remington Fireball,” Marshall said. “The bullets travel at 4,000 feet per second, and they explode on the inside, but they won’t go through.”

All Friday afternoon and evening, the pickup trucks, many with jacked-up suspensions, arrived outside the bar, prompting stares from the RV drivers who rolled through on Highway 50. The weekend in Austin came with a dress code: camouflage. Men in green and brown earth-toned uniforms walked the streets, some chomping on cigars, eating in the restaurant, and ordering rounds at the bar.

“We tried conference-calling those coyotes, but they refused to leave the state and relocate to Florida,” one hunter said. “So now they’re fair game.” Another said he was there to drink, not hunt: “I’ll shoot any coyote that walks through that bar door.”

As the game of pool wrapped up, Jesse talked about the cautious nature of the animal he hunts. “Coyotes are graceful,” he said. “They’re a dog.” His brother hadn’t said much, but finally stepped in. “They don’t do any good,” Worth said. “They eat all your useful food.” Jesse nodded. The brothers planned to get started early the next morning. Jesse had a phrase for those minutes just after dawn and just before sunset. “That’s shootin’ time,” he said.

 

Dawn arrived at 7,000 feet amid a steady rain and a 40-degree chill that hunters suspected would keep the coyotes in their dens. Phil Marshall was up before the light; he wasn’t killing coyotes, but he still had work to do. He perched at the end of the bar, drinking coffee, the stools still upside-down from the previous night’s cleanup. He divided several piles of cash and put them in envelopes for the winners in each category, using a calculator to make sure he got his accounting right.

Asked about the motivation to join the coyote hunt, Marshall pointed to a pile of tens, twenties and fifties. “This is the thrill of the chase right here,” he said. “You get to do what you love to do and compete for money. Get paid for doing your hobby.”

Marshall had flown into Austin on his private plane and had invited some friends from the Bay Area. He allowed some novice hunters to take along guides. “Some of these old guys couldn’t find the back door if they weren’t shown it,” he said. “If you don’t know the area, you don’t do very well.”

The registration board showed 21 teams, the last entrants arriving after long drives from around the state. Marshall acknowledged that the hunt didn’t do much to fill the town’s motels, because most hunters sleep in their trucks to get an early start.

Down the street at the International Cafe and Bar, waitress Angel Walker said she wished the coyote hunts would help other businesses than Marshall’s bar. “Hunters are like pack animals,” said one customer, drinking coffee at the counter. “They all stick together.” Walker scoffed. “Last year, I saw them all walking in the street with their bloody kills in their hands,” she said. “Nobody came in here.”

For Marshall, there wasn’t much to do but wait. He and two brothers kept tabs on the contest from hunters who called in.

By 9 a.m., one team had already dispatched five animals. The chase was on.

Last year, the hunt tallied 37 coyotes, but organizers expected more this time. In lean years, all the hunters combined might kill one coyote. The Austin event is small compared to some others. In 2013, for example, the World Coyote Calling championship in Elko claimed more than 300 killed.

The big events bring out many hunters’ competitive nature — and for some that means cheating. A few years ago, Marshall disqualified a team from Fallon after he found that many of the group’s coyotes had been killed earlier and stored on ice until hunting day. “If someone brings in a stinky dog, you know that animal is at least a week old,” he said. “We told those guys to get out of town and not come back.”

Around 2 p.m., when news came in that the U.S. Senate had voted to place Brett Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court, several hunters celebrated by firing their rifles into the air.

Later, Marshall received another report from the field. One of his Bay Area pals had shot a coyote out near the dump. Then he got the real story: The man had forgotten to load his gun, so the animal got away. Another caller said a group had killed four coyotes outside town. The tally would have been five, but one was wounded and slipped away.

Marshall had one qualm about the coyote hunt: The animals aren’t good eating. As the rule goes, he said, you don’t eat anything that eats meat. “One year, I was firing up the barbecue for a cookout next to a pile of coyote carcasses, and a guy walked out of the bar and said, ‘You know, you can’t eat those.’ And I told him, ‘I know, heck, I know.’”

 

Patrick Donnelly opposes coyote-killing contests for two main reasons. The hunts are based on bad science, he says. And they’re unethical. Donnelly, state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, insists that predators such as coyotes, wolves, and mountain lions are essential to healthy ecosystems.

Each kill saves 13 calves? Not true, he said. “The science very clearly shows that killing coyotes, rather than reducing livestock kills, probably increases them. Killing coyotes creates more coyotes, that’s been documented scientifically. When too many animals are taken, females will have bigger litters of pups. The killing of coyotes also obstructs the hierarchy of groups so that the more aggressive coyotes are encouraged to fight over territory and potentially kill more livestock to assert their dominance.”

Just as troubling, he says, is the arrogance of some hunters. “Many want to kill coyotes so there are more deer for them to hunt, which puts more venison in their freezers,” he said. “This is a blood sport, the slaughtering of living animals for a game, and it’s antithetical to the compassionate and empathetic society we want to be.”

Nevada’s wildlife commission, he added, is dominated by hunters and ranchers who have “unlawfully reneged on their responsibilities to manage wildlife.” He added: “They’re giving in to guys who think it’s their right to kill as many animals as they want because they have dominion over the earth.”

Brad Johnston, chairman of the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners, rejected that characterization. “None of the commissioners believes we have the right to kill what we want, any time we want,” he said. “We pay close attention to hunting in this state.” If you ban coyote-killing contests, he asked, where does it end? “Do we ban fishing derbies for kids?” he asked. “Why is one acceptable and not the other? Where does it stop?”

“Our wildlife belongs to everyone, not just ranchers and farmers,” said Michael Sutton, who was president of the California Fish and Game Commission when it voted to outlaw all wild animal hunts. “Just because you have permission to use public land doesn’t give you dominion over all the animals who live there.” He called the coyote contests an anachronism. “They should be relegated to the history books. That cowboy mentality to shoot anything that moves, it’s outdated. These days, we know a lot more about predator ecology than we did in the Old West. We can no longer keep killing these wild animals just to satisfy some farmer’s or rancher’s ego.”

The rain had stopped, and the late-afternoon sun poked through the clouds as the coyote hunters began showing up at the Silver State Saloon. Their trucks were muddied, their kills tagged and piled into the beds of their pickups, coyote jaws cinched tight with plastic straps. Men hovered around the registration board, comparing shots.

John, a rancher who would only give his first name, said the competition wasn’t among hunters but between man and animal. “The man who hunts a coyote loves the coyote,” he said. “It’s a standoff between you and him.”

Donnelly balked at this. “The tradition of respect from hunting comes from peoples utilizing the prey for sustenance,” he said. “I’m not saying that some hunters don’t have a relationship with the animals they hunt, but there is nothing respectful about a coyote-killing contest.” Nothing respectful or fair about mimicking prey to dupe the animals into shooting range. “These people slaughter large numbers of animals, and then pile them up for a photo op before tossing the carcasses in a ditch. Where’s the respect in that?”

For the weigh-in, the contestants moved outside into an empty parking lot next to a youth center. Some opened the beds of their trucks and showed off their kills. Others threw the bloody corpses onto the ground. Two officials assessed each animal, cutting through a hind leg to hang it from a line attached to a rudimentary scale. One sportsman lamented: “That dog would have weighed more but we shot half his ass off!”

As officials worked, more hunters arrived, providing a running commentary.

“He was on his way to becoming one big bad coyote,” one said, “until those guys with camouflage came in.”

One contestant produced an animal that weighed in at more than 30 pounds. “That’s a wolf right there,” one man said. “That’s not a coyote.” John sized up the big carcass. “Fortunately,” he told his friends, “we’re above them on the food chain, or we’d be running from them.”

Still, he insisted it wasn’t all about the kill. “I had a little blue-eyed guy come up in my scope,” he said. “He was just a pup, so I didn’t shoot. That little bastard has a little more time to live.”

When the counting was done, the competition had netted 78 coyotes. A few hunters skinned their kills there in the parking lot. But most took a few photos and walked away. Marshall said that in past years, a man trucked the carcasses to Utah to collect the bounties. Other times, the bodies are dumped outside town. “That way,” Marshall said, “the other animals can feed on ’em.”

Just before sundown, an older hunter leaned against his pickup and talked about his success with a call that mimicked a wounded rabbit. But his best tactic, he said, was a call that imitated a wounded coyote: “The others come in to finish the job.

“Well,” the old man added, taking a draw off his beer, “that was a fun day. Profitable, too.”

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