In Praise of Varmint Hunting

In the past couple of posts here, I made allusions to a desire to get out and do some coyote hunting around my neck of the woods, with an eye to helping out landowners with their predator control.  For the uninitiated, coyotes in Southwest Ontario (much of Ontario really) are in need of controlling.  If you took a random sample of say, thirty rural landowners, and asked them if they’ve lost livestock or pets to coyotes in the past twenty four months, I would conjecture that maybe fully a third of them would say that they have.  I’d also conjecture that well over half would report some kind of run-in with a bold, fearless coyote that may not have led to the loss of livestock or companion animals, but that certainly put the threat of such an event on the landowner’s mind.  This was not always the case, and despite my youth (I’m not even ‘scraping thirty-five’ as one friend of mine puts it) I have heard countless tales from the older generations that comprise my friends and hunting companions that relate the history of the coyote from a once infrequently-seen predator to its current status as a downright nuisance.  Suburban (and in some cases, urban) people also report coyotes in areas that fall outside the animal’s original ecological niche, so much so that national media reports have been printed on the subject.  Clearly, something is up with coyotes.

Now volumes of work and reams of print have been dedicated to the subject of coyote population dynamics and all the environmental and ecological factors that drive said dynamic, so I will defer to the findings of experts in this respect; what I will state is this (and it is based solely on personal observation and anecdotal evidence so take it for what it is worth)…there are a load of coyotes around, and a glut of predators (especially such highly efficient predators as the coyote) will, and in my eyes is, having a negative effect on what could be dubbed the “preferred game animals” of Ontario.

But enough justification.  Despite anything remotely controversial I may have posited as my viewpoint in numerous preceding “Taboo of the Day” posts, I have never received such a venomous response as I did recently regarding my simple statement that I would like to hunt some coyotes this winter.  Now many of them were from apparent non-hunters (which is expected, although I still don’t fully understand the psychology of cruising websites devoted to topics that you vehemently oppose and then sending vitriolic emails to the proprietors of those websites…I, quite frankly, have more productive things to occupy my time with) but I did get a couple posts from dedicated hunters as well.  Unlike the non-hunters (who just got all sweary and rude in their emails) the hunting public that emailed me had some cogent arguments that I simply could not refute, so I won’t try to.  I fully respect the stance these individuals had (and it was unanimous, interestingly enough) that it was against their ethic to shoot a coyote (or fox, woodchuck, or raccoon) because they did not intend to eat it.  I can support them in that stance.  I don’t share that ethic to the degree that they do, because I still find value in varmint hunting, but I can’t find fault in their logic.  I was very happy that they politely and articulately shared their point of view with me.
As mentioned above though, it is not against my personal ethic to hunt and harvest animals that have traditionally been dubbed “varmints” (a term by the way that has fallen out of favour in some hunting circles because it apparently creates a demarcation line between pests and traditional ‘game animals’…it has been replaced in some circles with ‘predator hunting’ or ‘population control’.  I prefer, and will continue to use, the classic term).  Now you, dear reader, may ask why I still see merit in varmint hunting when I have devoted numerous posts to a definition of hunting that weighs heavily in favour of the ethical consumption of game meat.  I can assure you that I intend no hypocrisy in this stance.  However, a large part of my hunting ethic also involves responsible stewardship and continuous, improved enjoyment of the hunting tradition as well.  And this is where I side with varmint hunting.  Many (I would say the majority) of negative interactions with coyotes, raccoons, foxes, skunks, woodchucks (aka, groundhogs), porcupines, feral hogs, and so on down the list are not rooted in hunting.  I would argue that the cause of these issues are more firmly found in over-zealous human development and expansion, ill-advised population introductions, agricultural and ecological practices that are propitious for the animals in question (both predators and prey), and a host of other non-hunting related factors that have  either brought people into direct interaction with wild animals that they previously would not have encountered or allowed the animals in question to thrive and expand their ranges into areas that they had not previously occupied.  Or both.  I work with a very nice man who attributes the loss of his housecat earlier this year to coyote predation.  He and his family were obviously upset and I agree that it is a loss for them, but I could not help but wonder if he understands that purchasing a home in a large executive development in what was once a primarily wilderness area was the key contributing factor.  Frankly the coyote (or fisher, or fox, or whatever it was that killed his cat) was there first.  We could all do well to remember that simple fact when we have ‘problems’ with wildlife; it is a fact that I think many varmint hunters understand. 
Another point I’d like to make is that in the context of varmint hunting, the operative word is ‘hunting’.  We are hunters, not exterminators.  I would urge any and all varmint hunters to embrace this distinction and act accordingly, if only to prevent an attitude of wanton extirpation when it comes to the activity, as this is not really a publically preferable or ecologically responsible alternative either.  What I think many varmint hunters are striving for is a fair chase approach to controlling the way that non-game species interact with people.  The simple wiping out of a predator or non-predator simply because they pose an inconvenience or a legitimate threat smacks of the same irresponsibility as allowing unchecked expansion and unfettered crashes in population.  Some would argue that allowing a species to go about its population cycle ‘naturally’ is preferable to hunting in any way; however I would argue that the animals themselves have no concept of their ‘natural’ state and that they will use any and all artificial, enhanced, or otherwise ‘unnatural’ sources to aid in their survival.  A deer does not understand that a standing corn field is not ‘native browse’; it simply eats to stay alive.  Likewise, a coyote or fisher does not make the distinction between squirrel and housecat; it will exploit the resources of its survival efficiently and with the inhumane calculations of its evolution.  A porcupine doesn’t choose to gnaw on a tree rather than chewing through a barn door or the underside of a home…it just gnaws.  And do not forget to give thought to what happens in a population that has become dependent on artificial sources when that artificial source is removed, poisoned, or protected.  But enough impromptu ecology class; I think this point has been sufficiently explained.  Varmint hunting allows for a means to address some of this imbalance, while likewise providing increased hunting opportunities and time afield.
From a strictly hunting perspective, varmint hunting is challenging, and there is merit there as well.  Either in terms of physically pursuing the animals or in executing an effective, immediate killing shot there is much in varmint hunting to test and refine the hunter’s skill.  Every type of varmint hunt is different and presents its own unique set of difficulties, and associated rewards.  To take on the keenly-developed senses of a coyote in a sit-and-call type of hunt is a supreme challenge, but then again so is using hounds to dog a fox as the little escape artist uses all its cunning to get to safety, which it does more often than not.  Both approaches present different shots and experiences, and both require different skills to be done in an efficient and humane way.  Hunting gophers and woodchucks presents its own unique set of problems, but those hunts often foster good landowner relationships, particularly if the hunter acts responsibly in accessing the property and using good judgment in discharging their firearm.  In this respect accuracy, effective still-hunting, and execution are key; skills that always need practice and that are readily transferable to many other hunting scenarios.  In general, very rarely is varmint hunting a ‘pot-shot’ type of act, and it is almost never easy.
But in general I support and engage in varmint hunting because it is part of the responsible management of wildlife, because for better or for worse the environment is already changed and the animals don’t know any different.  Stewardship sometimes (I would argue oftentimes) is a labour of mud and blood.  Varmint hunting is not as glamorous as harvesting a mature white-tail buck, or arguably as exciting as the full-strut approach of a big boss gobbler on a still and warm spring morning, or is it as esoterically beautiful as witnessing the wide swing of a flock of mallards against a low gray sky as they respond to your enticing calls and parachute into your setup with feet and flaps down.  But, I would argue, it is a necessary and time-honoured part of being involved in the hunting tradition.  And by that alone it is worth pursuing.

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