Killing Games: Wildlife in the Crosshairs Minnesota Premiere!

The days of industrial scale hunting might seem like something from a bygone era. Surely, we’ve evolved as a nation? Think again. Odds are there’s an event planned this weekend in a town near you where wildlife will be slaughtered en masse.

Across the country, barbaric contests aptly called “killing contest” are pegged as family fun where even Jr. can nab a defenseless critter for the chance to win a prize, more often than not a trophy or ribbon not unlike one you’d get at a county fair.

At these events, participants point, aim, and fire at anything that moves to rack up the most, the heaviest, the smallest: the superlatives are as endless as they are cruel. What’s worse is this isn’t the subsistence hunting or fair chase associated with ethical sportsmen. It’s killing for no other reason than slaughter.

One of the leaders in the effort to stop this unethical treatment of native wildlife is Camilla Fox, founder and executive director of Project Coyote, a predator education non-profit that seeks to teach the general public about coexistence strategies for both predators and people.

For the past 10 years Camilla and her cohorts at Project Coyote have fought for the rights of native species to live in peace alongside us. And in doing so, a nascent movement to get states to ban wildlife killing contests has gained traction. Allies include a diverse mix of ranchers, scientists, conservationists, and everyday citizens who care about wildlife.

Through various programs that include community education, partnerships with farmers, and wildlife advocacy in the halls of government, Project Coyote has helped turn the tide against the unabated exploitation of wildlife. But it’s not easy.

“The view that wildlife is here for our exploitation, for our recreational and commercial use is at the base of practices like killing contests,” Fox tells me over the phone. “And until we change that fundamental perspective of viewing wild animals as something that we can kill in unlimited numbers for fun and prizes, we won’t really be getting at the base core problem…”

Attacking that problem will require a mix of tactics, ranging from advocacy to legal action, all of which Fox is poised to use in an effort to bring awareness to how we as a country mismanage wildlife. One of her most recent projects includes the production of an award winning documentary style film called Killing Games, Wildlife in the Crosshairs.

The film is shot through the lens of those most affected by predator contests – coyotes. While they are the focus, however, the film employs a host of narratives from stakeholders, like ranchers Becky Weed and Keli Hendricks, who want to see an end to killing contests.

With reason and raw emotion, storytellers give voice to the voiceless through science-based data and personal anecdotes. The result is a film that offers a compelling mix of stories that both pull at your heart strings and offers an alternative way to view and live with predators.

“I look at killing contests as an exercise in cruelty”, says Michael Soule, a Project Coyote science advisory board member, in the film. “Why would you want to kill creatures just for the fun of it? We’re talking about mammals, animals that have a pretty high level of consciousness. They’re aware of what’s happening to them and that means they suffer.”

The victims are often some of our countries most important species – coyotes, foxes, bobcats, mountain lions, and sometimes even wolves.

Proponents will tell you that they’re managing pests, helping ungulate populations, and reducing conflicts with wildlife. But all of these reasons have been debunked by peer reviewed studies. And some studies show that indiscriminately killing coyotes can actually have the opposite effect.

But research and organizations like the Human Society of the United States say otherwise.

“Research suggests that when aggressively controlled, coyotes can increase their reproductive rate by breeding at an earlier age and having larger litters, with a higher survival rate among the young,” reports the HSUS website. “This allows coyote populations to quickly bounce back, even when as much as 70 percent of their numbers are removed.”

So in effect, wildlife killing contests may actually create more problems than they purport to solve. In addition, by killing predators, the participants are destroying ecosystems that predate our existence and time on this continent.

While wildlife killing contests have been happening in the shadows of America since the late 50’s, the advent of social media has brought them and their participants into the wider public view. And many aren’t pleased by what they see.

“There’s no justification for this other than … the cheap exploitation of human power and weaponry over defenseless animals”, says Project Coyote advisory board member Peter Coyote in Killing Games. “That’s not sport. That’s just massacre.”

By highlighting ethical ways to manage and live with wildlife, the film shows how our current system is woefully lacking. Scenes are replete with beautiful stories from ranchers and scientists who work with community members to reshape the narrative around predator management. Their focus is on one that includes a host of non-lethal techniques like using guard dogs, fladry, and range riders to deter predation.

As the film also wonderfully captures how key native predators are to the ecosystems in which they inhabit. They keep environments healthy by managing rodent populations and keeping grazers in check.

“All of these carnivores, … they all have their particular niches to maintain the health of ecosystems,” says veterinarian, bioethicist, and author Michael W. Fox (also Camilla’s father). “When they are disrupted, when they are exterminated, ecosystems change.”

This change often has a decremental impact on other species and the environment overall and some states have taken notice. Project Coyote scored a big win in 2014 when California, their home state, prohibited the awarding of prizes or other inducements for the killing of non-game and furbearing animals as part of a contest, derby or tournament. This ban covers not just coyotes, but also bobcats, foxes and raccoons who are often targeted in killing contests.

Since then, the momentum has only increased. Last year Vermont banned coyote killing contests. New Mexico followed up this year by doing the same. And most recently Arizona Game and Fish passed a rule that would ban killing contests as well.

The goal of the film is to call attention to the shadowy business of killing contests while building on the success of bans at the state level. But the ultimate goal is to inspire grassroots action to ban this bloodsport nationwide.

And this is where you come in. If you want to get involved, Fox offers a number of suggestions to voice your concerns. One of the lowest hanging fruits is commenting in the comments section online. If you’re really looking to speak up, write letters to the editors of the major news outlets in your area to express your opposition. And for those that are ready to role their sleeves up, you can write letters to your state legislature, governor’s office, and state fish and game commission encouraging a ban of wildlife killing contests.

More than exposing wildlife killing contests for their cruelty and pointlessness, the film offers a chance for you to learn about what’s happening in your backyard.

If you’re in the Great Lakes area this week, come check out the Minnesota premier of Killing Games this Wednesday, July 24th at 7pm at the Landmark Edina Cinema, in Edina, Minnesota, just outside Minneapolis. The screening will be hosted by Rachel Tilseth, herself, and is a part of the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. Purchase tickets here .

Additionally, Camilla and colleagues from the National Coalition to End Wildlife Killing Contests will be part of a post panel discussion to answer questions, hear your thoughts, and talk to you directly about wildlife killing contests and how to stop them.

To learn more about Project Coyote and the film, please visit http://www.projectcoyote.org/

Sen. Udall and Rep. Beyer Revive Wildlife Corridors Bill to Make Movement Easier and Safer for Wildlife

There are over 4 million miles of highways, roads, and other transportation arteries throughout the US and many of them cut through the heart of vital habitat for endangered and threatened species. While key to our mobility, they are often designed without consideration for wildlife movement.

The impacts of these paved paths can be devastating for wildlife. On a basic level, isolated islands of biodiversity are formed that fragment wildlife populations, divide habitats, and degrade ecosystems. At its extreme, human development cuts off entire migration routes and blocks any chance of adapting to changing ecosystems.

Earlier this month, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) introduced a bill that would make movement safer and easier for wildlife. The impetus for the bill was the recent UN report that found at least 1 million species are in danger of extinction due to accelerated human activity.

The Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act of 2019, as it’s known, would help stem the tide of declining species and habitats by connecting ecosystems with over crosses, underpasses, and culverts. They would create a system of corridors that connect and extend habitats so that animals can move over large areas, whether it be for daily foraging, seasonal migration, or finding a mate.

“Widespread habitat destruction is leaving scores of animal and plant species both homeless and helpless. We must act now to conserve wildlife corridors that would save species and mitigate against the mass extinction crisis we are rapidly hurtling toward,” said Sen. Udall in a press release. “In New Mexico, our millions of acres of public lands are home to thousands of iconic species that could vanish if we fail to take action that enable species to survive.”

There are approximately 1 – 2 million wildlife vehicle collisions annually. A Federal Highways Administration study found road mortality is one of the leading threats to at least 21 endangered and threaten species. And according to the same study, accidents cost Americans approximately eight billion dollars a year. While the damage is mostly monetary for people, wildlife often end up squished roadkill.

The idea for a unifying wildlife corridors framework is hardly new. Rep. Beyer sponsor a wildlife corridors bill back in 2016 and, most recently, a similar bill was sponsor by both Sen. Udall and Rep. Beyer in December 2018. Both proposals stalled in the House after being submitted to subcommittees.

Nevertheless, research on places like Banff National Park have shown that building wildlife corridors can be a powerful tool for protecting biodiversity. One study found that the installation of wildlife crossings along stretches of the Trans-Canada Highway reduced collisions on average by 80% over a 24-year period.

Such success has spurred some states to warm up to the idea of animal crossings. The Western Governors Association and several New England states, along with south eastern Canadian provinces, have already drafted agreements that recognize the importance of increasing wildlife connectivity. And at least seven states have proposed legislation that would require Fish and Wildlife departments to identify, study, or install wildlife corridors. In many of them, linking habitats would protect some of our most iconic species like big horn sheep, pronghorn, grizzly bears, wolves, and the Florida panther.

“With roughly one in five animal and plant species in the U.S. at risk of extinction due to habitat loss and fragmentation, one of the simplest yet most effective things we can do is to provide them ample opportunity to move across lands and waters,” said Rep. Beyer. “The U.N. report on accelerating extinctions makes it clear that the window for action to protect the planet’s biodiversity is closing.”

Wildlife corridors are especially useful for connecting national parks, which act as refuges, but are being pushed to their limits as climates change and development erodes what habitat is left. As such, the once vast areas degrade, reducing their ability to sustain the myriad of species and plants that depend on them.

In practice, the bill would grant authority to key federal agencies including the Department of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Interior, and Transportation to designate wildlife corridors on federal lands. And they would work with state, tribal, and voluntary private stakeholders to identify, build, and manage the corridors on non-federal land. Regional Wildlife Movement Councils will identify and rank non-federal projects and use money from the Wildlife Grant Program to incentivize land owners willing to participate. The goal would be to connect federal and non-federal lands to create an entire system that will traverse the entire country.

Despite the bill’s support among conservation groups and bipartisan sponsors (one republican, Vern Buchanan (R-FL), cosponsored it), it’s unclear whether it’ll pass the House, let alone a Republican lead Senate. In all likelihood, more momentum is needed across the aisle before there’s any further movement. Yet the bill’s sponsors remain resolute.

“The science is clear: human activity is destroying and disrupting the habitats of wildlife around the world. If we don’t change course, entire ecosystems will be lost and entire species will be wiped out forever. It’s already happening,” said Sen. Wyden (D-OR), a cosponsor, in a statement. “The United States needs to do its part in taking better care of our planet and protecting the one million plant and animal species now facing extinction before it’s too late.”

What I learned attending a weekend workshop about gray wolves.

Long maligned in folklore, wolves have an image problem that has hindered conservation efforts since their recovery. Just last week, the Trump administration announced that it will move forward with delisting the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act, the 1973 law that affords legal safeguards for at risk species and their habitats.

Until 2011, congressional attempts to remove protections for wolves were blocked by the courts. That changed, however, when two Western Senators, from Montana and Idaho, slipped a provision into the Federal Spending Bill (a measure called a “rider”) that stripped wolves of federal protections. In doing so, they circumvented the courts and escaped judicial review. Since then, there have been over 350 legislative attacks that would undermine species specific laws or erode provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) entirely.

Sean Duffy, representative for Wisconsin’s 7th district, was the latest to go after wolf protections by slipping a rider into an appropriations bill that passed the House last autumn. His bill, like the ones before it, proposed removing federal protection for wolves and barred judicial review.

As a conservation enthusiast, I wanted to know more about the plight of wolves and decided to visit Duffy’s district this past winter to learn about the dynamics affecting wolf policy in the area.

My timing was perfect. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) invites members of the public (citizen scientists) to join their volunteer tracking program every winter to help gather data about wolf populations, distribution, and breeding.

There are two organizations that are listed as WDNR partners for conducting surveys – the Timber Wolf Information Network (TWIN) and the Timber Wolf Alliance. Together they help track and monitor the 900 or so wolves that inhabit Wisconsin.

But only TWIN offered an immersive workshop, combined with a mini-tracking session, where I might have been able to see a wolf. Having fantasies of chasing wolves through the woods, I was sold and soon found myself booking a trip to Wisconsin’s Sandhill Wildlife Area where TWIN was hosting its third and last workshop of the season.

The workshops, led by veteran wolf biologist Dick Theil (Wisconsin’s first wolf biologist), his brother Scott Theil, and Bob Welch, are like Wolf 101 for non-scientists. Decked out in rugged style field coats, retro trapper caps, and snow boots, the trio of instructors looked more like explorers than teachers. For the past 30 years, they have brought the public closer to wolves from their Sandhill base.

I arrived exhausted from my journey, but excited to finally be among the white pine and aspen trees for which this area is famous. The air was crisp, and the sounds of the forest immediately made me feel more connected to nature.

Entering the main building, I was met by the glass-eyed gazes of what appeared to be every native species and then some. The taxidermy made me question whether I was in the right place, but I was relieved when I heard they were all victims of accidental or natural death.

The first day was a marathon of wolf history from the ice age up until European settlement, when Westward expansion pushed wolves to the brink of extinction. My group of two dozen was captivated by giant wolf skulls, tales of necropsies, and personal stories of wolf recovery in the area.

By the second day, we were eager to get into the field. We saw lots of critter signs, but wolf sightings were nil. We did, however, see other telltale signs that they were in the area. Our group was giddy with excitement when we saw the yellow staining of raised-leg urination and even more so after seeing the droplets of blood left by a female in heat, both clear indications that wolves had passed through.

As I listened to the instructors, two opposing views constantly butted against each other – one fighting for tradition and property rights, and the other for progress and the rights of wildlife. Opponents of endangered species protections for wolves want management returned to the states. Their argument is that wolves have recovered and thus no longer need federal protections. But wolf advocates counter that it’s these very protections that have allowed the fragile populations to bounce back. Without them, wolves are slaughtered, as witnessed in states where protection have been removed.

A good case study for state management is Wisconsin between 2012 – 2014. In those two years 528 wolves were legally killed. These harvests aren’t based on science and often hurt wolf populations by breaking up packs and orphaning young. Yet these forms of management are still considered standard practice for state wildlife agencies.

Beyond highlighting unethical management practices, the workshop drove home a constant theme – wolves are not the monsters we make them out to be. A lot of our fears about wolves are based on anachronist folklore that has no place in the 21st century. For instance, far from being rapacious killers who deplete game populations, wolves actually help keep herds healthy by preying on the sick, the old, and the weak. A graph documenting wolf predation reflected this, with the ages of kills being mostly very old and very young. Also, the impact on livestock is overblown. Of Wisconsin’s 1.5 million dairy cows and beef cattle, the WDNR confirmed 24 wolf kills in 2018.

The hysteria around wolves is largely pushed by farmers and hunters who loathe predators – wolves, coyotes, bears, lions – and that’s terrible for conservation efforts. These two groups pump millions of dollars into state wildlife management through hunting and trapping licenses, and hunting related sales taxes. This has lead to a prioritization of policies that favor these two groups at the expense of non-game species.

Such favoritism flies in the face of the public trust doctrine which states that federal agencies should protect our wild spaces for the enjoyment of all, not just a select few. Also, by catering to special interest groups, state wildlife management agencies exclude a large portion of the population who enjoy wildlife for its intrinsic value in a non-consumptive form – naturalists, scientists, wildlife enthusiasts, and photographers.

Because of this disparity in viewpoints, consensus on what wolf conservation should look is rare. From our discussions, it would seem that holistic approaches to management, where the interest of multiple stakeholders is considered, might be the only way forward. Wolves are thriving where ranchers have developed non-lethal forms of deterrents, conservationists have secured legal protections, and limited predator controls are allowed. This seems to be the sweet spot for wolf recovery today.

As I left Sandhill and headed towards the interstate, I reflected on how eye-opening the workshop was. It showed a world where wolves serve as guardians of the ecosystems they inhabit and are actually more like us than what I initially believed. They are highly social, sentient animals who value family structure, are devoted to each other, nurture their young, and mourn the loss of pack members. I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to visit this part of Wisconsin and to connect on some level with wolves.

I thought about their future and what that would look like without the protections that have afforded them a second chance. If the states that have delisted wolves are any indication, it’s not looking good.