The coyote is a clever, resourceful animal whose territory covers almost every square mile of California.
It is also a serious predator that hunts backyard hens, cats and small dogs, as well as commercial poultry, lambs and calves. Oh, and now and then they get a hankering for small children.
That's not just scare-mongering. Last summer in Orange County, while a family was paying respects to a late relative at the Forest Lawn cemetery in Cypress, their 2-year-old girl was attacked by a coyote. Quick-acting family members fought back and saved the girl, who has recovered from her wounds, but similar attacks have become common enough that Southern California wildlife authorities advise against allowing young children to play unattended, even in securely fenced backyards. A six-foot fence is a trivial obstacle to a hungry coyote.
Some say living with predators is part of the deal when we move into their territory, this particular attack took place not on the exurban fringe, but in one of the densest parts of Orange County.
Coyotes are notoriously wary of people, so why have they crowded into Southern California? Partly because of the free meals. Trash cans, compost piles, pet food, backyard fruit trees -- and all those dogs and cats -- provide ready calories.
At the same time, coyotes have increasingly lost their fear of humans for the simple reason that in many areas, we no longer haze and harass them. To be blunt, in urban areas, ranchers don't shoot at them.
It sounds cold-blooded, but it's true: Hunting coyotes keeps them safely wary of humans -- and keeps them wild. They can prey on squirrels and rabbits, an important natural role, without putting preschoolers at risk on the backyard swing set while mom fixes lunch.
And, for ranchers, limiting coyote predation is critical to earning a living while putting wholesome food on American tables. Recent years have brought surging consumer demand for meat that is humanely raised on open pastures -- as opposed to feedlot beef and chickens that never see sunlight -- but the harsh fact is that more natural conditions mean more exposure to natural predators, especially coyotes. Ranchers have to control them to stay in business.
The long-running annual Coyote Drive in Adin, in remote Modoc County, has become a target of criticism from animal-rights activists and coyote admirers. They're pushing for severe limits on coyote hunts -- as extreme as requiring a permit to shoot a nuisance coyote, at a minimum barring contests like the Coyote Drive, which offers a prize for the hunters who take the most animals in a weekend. The California Fish and Game Commission will take up the issue at its April 16 meeting in Ventura.
This event isn't to everyone's taste in 21st-century California. That much is obvious. But critics' overblown rhetoric has little to do with reality.
They call it the wholesale slaughter. It's nothing of the sort. In 2013, 90 two-person teams shot 42 coyotes. In other words, the typical participant spent a weekend tramping around the backcountry of northeastern California and shot nothing.
The animal-rights activists propose banning any prize for predator-hunting contests, but nobody is being bribed into going hunting. A belt buckle or rifle for the hunter skilled or lucky enough to win is a memento -- no different from a soccer tournament trophy or medal for winning your age bracket at the weekend 10K. No, hunters participate as a community service -- to control the coyote population -- and for the challenge of pursuing a wily and elusive target.
What's more, hunting restrictions should be based on the principles of wildlife management, and coyotes are abundant, with a statewide population estimated at half a million. The species is at no risk whatsoever.
Modoc County's method of managing coyotes surely seems like a throwback to many. It wouldn't work in urban Southern California, where crowds leave little room for hunters. But it works in the state's remote northeast. It keeps coyotes wild instead of letting them take up residence in our back yards. Banning the hunt would be an act based on sentimentality, not the science that should drive the decisions of the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, represents California's 1st Assembly District.