Sunday, January 11, 2015

Op-ed: Utah hunters must know a coyote from a wolf

By Robert Schmidt
First Published Jan 10 2015
A case of mistaken identity resulted in the first accidental shooting of a gray wolf in Utah since the species was extirpated in the 1930s ("Coyote hunter by mistake kills a wolf near Beaver," Dec. 30). This was bound to happen, as the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources encourages shooting and trapping coyotes with its "Mule Deer Protection Act" bounty programs, and there is a lack of any reference to wolf identification in the required online predator control program training course.

In fact, DWR doesn’t even require that coyote hunters be able to identify a coyote, thus depending on ethical hunters to observe the mantra "know your target." Sadly, in this case, that was not followed. A 70-pound wolf wearing a radio collar does not look identical to a 30-pound coyote. The animal’s overall profile, foot size, tail position and facial characteristics are all part of the identification process.

As a wildlife biologist, I recognize that some animals have a similar appearance. This is why waterfowl hunters have to learn to identify ducks and swans on the wing, crow hunters the differences between a common raven and an American crow and bison hunters the subtle differences between male, female and subadult bison. No ethical hunter shoots at a large, four-legged animal on the mountain, and only after killing it identifies it as a buck or doe, or an elk versus a moose. Hunter-education instructors in Utah and elsewhere hammer on the point of target identification.

In 2002, a gray wolf (253M) born in Yellowstone National Park was accidentally captured in a coyote trap near Morgan and released into Grand Teton National Park. Since then, other dispersing wolves have traveled through Utah. In 2014, a large canid was observed in southern Utah, and genetic testing confirmed this was a female Rocky Mountain gray wolf. Thus, since 2002, wildlife managers and hunters have known that Rocky Mountain wolves were capable of dispersing into Utah and were doing it with regularity.

Combine the facts that gray wolves are present in Utah, that DWR encourages shooting coyotes ($50 bounty) and that there are no requirements that coyote hunters be able to distinguish between a coyote and a wolf, and it is obvious that this shooting was a predictable affair.

So where do we go from here? First, DWR needs to update its required online predator control program training to include wolf identification. I would also suggest that this training be required every year so that coyote hunters retain familiarity with wolf identification characteristics.

Second, since shooting coyotes apart from the bounty program doesn’t require any sort of license (they fall under the control of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food as predatory animals), there should be information on wolf identification in all the relevant hunting regulation guidebooks published by DWR. If you are going to shoot a coyote while out deer hunting, you simply have to be able to distinguish between coyotes, wolves and domestic dogs … target identification.

Finally, all hunting groups should educate their members regarding wolf identification. And all ethical hunters should welcome the information. 

I recognize that this first wolf shooting was an honest mistake. However, from now on, shooting a protected gray wolf in Utah can no longer be consider a mistake. It will be a violation of both law and ethical hunting.

Robert Schmidt is a certified wildlife biologist in Logan and an associate professor in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University.