Ban on coyote-hunting contests moves ahead after lengthy debate

A bill banning coyote tournaments survived unchanged after two hours of debate on the House floor Wednesday. It would be the first law in the U.S. that imposes possible jail time on individuals taking part in the competitive hunting of coyotes.

The bill still needs final approval from the House before moving to the Senate. After years of pressure from wildlife activists, the ban on coyote contests was added this year to a broader "housekeeping" bill drafted by the House Committee on Natural Resources and Wildlife.

Vermont would become the second state after California to ban the competitions.

House members took issue with various aspects of the proposed ban but ultimately shot down an amendment introduced by Brian Smith, R-Derby, that would have removed the coyote contest ban from the bill altogether.

Smith's amendment was split into two votes, one on the ban and associated civil penalties, and the other on additional criminal penalties.

The penalties for hunters who organize or partake in coyote tournaments — up to 60 days in prison and from $400 to $4,000 in fines — would be on the same level as illegally hunting big game. As a separate penalty, offenders would lose their hunting license for at least a year.

Rep. Susan Buckholz, D-West Hartford, said she supported the ban, and thought most hunters did too. But she was among the lawmakers pushing to remove the section imposing criminal penalties.

"This is not something that the judiciary and corrections should have to deal with," she said of the ban. "This is something new, and an animal that you can take out any time during the year. To send somebody to jail for this is beyond me."

Like-minded members said the bill should be returned to the House Judiciary Committee for review — a motion that was put to a vote and defeated. Buckholz and others said that if revoking hunting licenses proved to be an insufficient deterrent on its own, the discussion over different penalties could take place down the road.

Responding to claims that the proposed penalties were "overkill," James McCullough, D-Williston, seized on the word choice.

"Overkill is a very good pun," he said. "We are talking about the egregious slaughter contest for sentient beings, that are just being slain for the fun of it and prizes and recognition given out for the process."

He said he doubted his colleagues could bring together the votes to remove the criminal penalties, but they almost did. A roll call vote on removing the section on jail terms and fines went 74-63 in favor of keeping them.

Robert Helm, R-Fair Haven, said the ban was a case of legislative overreach, or at least micromanaging, as issues of wildlife control and conservation had for the past 15 years fallen within the purview of the Fish & Wildlife Board, an independent body.

"Now it appears we are going to sit back in the seat and start driving the bus again for issues that we want," he said. "The thing that frightens me is that it will catch and we will start doing that repeatedly and repeatedly and be back where we were 15 years ago."

Vermont's Fish and Wildlife Department has said that coyote populations are perfectly healthy as is, and has resisted calls for a competition ban or closed season on the animals, which can currently be hunted year-round.

This position has made Louis Porter, the department's commissioner, one of the main targets of animal rights activists campaigning on behalf of coyotes.

Speaking after Wednesday's vote, Porter said his agency made conservation decisions based on science, whereas lawmakers were debating what was essentially a social question of how coyotes should be treated in Vermont.

"This is a decision around whether some people don't like coyote hunting and would like to see it prevented, not because there is any threat to the coyote population, or any other population, but because they don't like the activity," he said.

Porter said that coyotes have an important role in Vermont's ecosystem, and noted that Vermont's open season and lack of regulations around hunting the animals was a "middle of the road approach" compared to states with government-sponsored coyote hunting contests.

"I would never, ever advocate for diminishing or eliminating the population," he said, "but the fact of the matter is that the relatively small amount of coyote hunting pressure that occurs is not any threat to the population, contests or no contests."


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