A controversial 1991 legislative bill to allow year-round hunting of coyotes was withdrawn by the New York state legislature pending public input via surveys and face-to-face deliberations. The engagement strategies in this process were innovative within a wildlife context.
Problems and Purpose
Management of the eastern coyote (Canis latrans var.) in northern New York (USA) has been highly variable and controversial. Historically, eastern coyotes were managed as an unprotected furbearer1 with active bounty hunting2 occurring throughout northern New York until 1971. In 1976, supported by the New York Trappers Association, the New York Legislature passed a law to conserve coyote populations and re-classified the animals as a game species3 with set seasons4 for hunting and trapping. Presently, coyote populations remain managed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (NYS DEC)5, with a specific hunting season that traditionally occurs between October and March.
Public perceptions about the impact of eastern coyotes in northern New York are extremely diverse, making management difficult. Assumptions regarding the negative impact on deer populations or livestock losses are ever-present. These perceptions fueled the proposal of a controversial New York Legislative bill in 1990 that would have allowed year-round hunting of coyotes. However, due to the controversial nature of the bill, it was withdrawn pending a study and recommendations by the NYS DEC Bureau of Wildlife.
Specifically, the NYS DEC aimed to:
- Assess the role of coyotes in New York’s Northern Zone  in relation to people, wildlife, and livestock
- Provide a conduit to solicit citizen input and opinions regarding coyote management
- Prepare a status report and management recommendations
The following analysis specifically investigates the citizen outreach and participation component (objective 3) of the management planning processes, and evaluates the outcomes of integrating public participation into the development of the final management plan.
Background History and Context
The historic presence of coyotes in New York is a widely debated topic. It is difficult to confirm their existence based on written records, partially due to misidentification as wolves (Canis lupus) by early settlers. Early records do make mention of large and small wolves, which may imply that coyotes had a historic presence in New York State. Increased settlement, however, led to a dramatic decline in the resident wolf population due to deforestation and unregulated hunting. Eventually, the New York State wolf populations were wiped out entirely, increasing available habitat for coyotes.
Reports of coyotes in New York began in the 1920s and have increased since that time. By 1940, a large coyote population resided in Franklin County, and by the 1980s their population had spread statewide with the exception of New York City and Long Island. Range expansion has since continued, and now coyotes inhabit areas of New York City and Long Island as well.
Coyotes, along with other predators, have been considered a controversial species for much of history. In New York State, there are records of predator control efforts as early as the 1780s and 1790s. Bounties were popular predator management strategies, but were deemed illegal by 1971. In 1976, management changed when coyotes were classified as a game species, which have designated hunting seasons. No daily bag limits7 exist for eastern coyotes, and landowners or lessees are permitted to destroy coyotes year-round if there is evidence of individual animals injuring or threatening livestock.
Communities have been highly interested in coyote management due to a number of issues, including:
- Damage to livestock. Although livestock owners are permitted to execute lethal control on “problem coyotes,” they are highly territorial creatures that will likely rapidly fill the niche of the removed individuals
- Impacts on other game (e.g., deer). Hunters are concerned that high numbers of coyotes will depreciate deer and other game populations and negatively impact hunting
- Health and human safety. Citizens of coyote-occupied areas have historically expressed concern for personal health and safety, as well as the safety of children and pets due to threats such as attacks or diseases
- Social and conservation benefits. Many citizens considered coyotes a valuable resource that provide social and ecological benefits and thus should be protected
Due to concerns of citizens in coyote-inhabited areas, the NYS DEC sought to integrate a robust public solicitation and participation process into the 1991 study. Using a series of public meetings in January and February they hoped to gain perspectives about expanding the coyote hunting season to year-round as well as other coyote management issues.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The public meetings were advertised in local newspapers and by word of mouth and were open to all interested members of the public. Although the meetings were advertised to all, key stakeholders, such as leaders of major conservation organizations, were also targeted directly to ensure their participation. Attendees were asked to register for each meeting to facilitate future communication with the NYS DEC regarding a summary of findings from public meetings and the eventual completion of the full study.
In addition to in-person solicitation, NYS DEC sought feedback through the use of surveys and requests for written comment. Informational letters were sent to 2,000 groups and individuals with an interest in New York State’s wildlife program. Recipients were solicited from all areas of the state and were derived from the Wildlife Program Management System, a digital database maintained by NYS DEC. A statewide news release issued in January further encouraged residents to contribute their opinions through written comments until March.
Methods and Tools Used
Know what methods or tools were used? Help us complete this section!
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The full study was conducted by the ad hoc Coyote Committee, which was led by the NYS DEC’s Bureau of Wildlife and the Cornell Cooperative Extension Unit (CCE; Cornell University). Expertise and representation included wildlife biologists, communications specialists, coyote researchers, academics, and representatives from relevant County Cooperative Extension offices. The public participation process was coordinated and facilitated by the CCE with support provided by the NYS DEC.
The participation events included mostly thick participation (i.e., involving extensive facilitated group discussions and deliberation). The meetings were then coupled with thin participation (i.e., involving fast and short responses to inquiries) through surveys and opportunities for written comments. The bulk of public interaction ccurred during four scheduled public meetings, constituent surveys, and written public comments. Public meetings were evenly split across the two main regions of northern New York during January and February of 1991; 570 individuals attended in total. The public comment period lasted until March 1st; 190 written responses were received and 62% of survey questionnaires were returned.
Each public meeting included a brief introduction on its purpose and the procedures that would govern how the event would be conducted. This was followed by a 20-minute presentation on the ecology and status of eastern coyote in northern New York given by NYS DEC biologists. A panel of coyote experts then fielded questions from the audience for 30 to 45 minutes after the presentation. Afterward, attendees were split into 5 to 6 working groups led by NYS DEC and CCE facilitators to discuss more specific concerns and recommendations. The working group process lasted 30 to 45 minutes, and concluded with the facilitators presenting highlights from each group to everyone in attendance.
At the conclusion of the public comment period, NYS DEC and CCE staff summarized and sorted comments into one of seven major issue categories (agricultural perspectives; social perspectives; health and safety concerns; sportsmen8 perspectives; regulatory/enforcement issues; environmental/ecological issues; and policy, educational, or research issues) so that similar contributions could be reviewed together. Additionally, staff ranked how frequently verbal and written comments occurred (high, medium, low).
A conclusory finding from the collective public input was that the proposed year-round coyote season is a highly controversial issue amongst the community at large. Support for or opposition to the issue was found to be highly dependent on an individual's background and perceptions. Individuals with agricultural or sportsmen concerns were split over the issue of year-round hunting, with sportsmen highly in favor of an extended season. Likewise, concerns over health and safety were also split, but when social, regulation, policy, education, and environmental concerns were weighed, a clear opposition to the year-round coyote season was expressed. Furthermore, the study found that environmental/ecological and regulatory/enforcement issues were expressed most frequently in meetings, comments, and letters. Most individuals cited these concerns in clear opposition to the year-round hunting season.
Influence, Outcome, and Effects
The deliberation and decision process was undertaken mainly by NYS DEC, but also included insight from other members of the ad hoc Coyote Committee. These individuals were assembled to analyze the scientific data that had been collected regarding coyote management, as well as to weigh the input received from the several avenues of public interaction that were offered. The findings generated during this process were then summarized into six major conclusions. Those specific to the public outreach process are summarized as follows:
- A clear-cut consensus did not exist for or against the implementation of a year-round coyote hunting season, though a majority of written comments (80%) and a majority of surveyed organizations (80%) were opposed to the year-round hunting season
- Human concerns regarding coyotes are not a major public issue and seem to be more localized and highly influenced by an individual’s background, personal interests, or geographic location
- Many of those who attended the public meetings did so as an avenue for education on the issue or of coyotes in general, not because they supported or opposed a particular position
Though it did not yield any significant results that were able to sway the outcome in a particular direction, public participation played a large role in how experts later deliberated about this issue. There was a lack of a clear majority opinion, which influenced the final management decision to maintain clear seasons for hunting coyotes. Additionally, NYS DEC specifically cited responses regarding which types of individuals would take advantage of the year-round hunting season. This case demonstrated the benefit of public participation as a tool for conservation and education, and it was accomplished in a manner that is rarely seen in the field of wildlife management.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The engagement strategies in this process, although not novel, were extremely innovative within a wildlife context. This study utilized a number of public involvement techniques including informational sessions, questions sessions with a panel of experts, small group and large group discussions, as well as news reports and opportunities for written comments. Different stakeholder perceptions were considered extensively, which ensured the diversity of opinions regarding coyote management were integrated into final recommendations. The only aspect of this strategy that could have been improved was that NYS DEC did not meet with or receive much input from legislators, therefor missing an important political component to the process.
Overall, this strategy was tremendously influential and remains one of the only predator control cases in which the public was engaged so extensively, which is perhaps why the management plan has not since been updated. Additionally, the participants of the meeting described it as an extremely positive experience making statements such as, “...the public meetings were executed superbly” and “...DEC’s handling of this matter (a potential problem) was so effective that your procedure might well serve as a model of how it should be done for similar cases in the future.” Overall, this study demonstrates an exemplary process that has arguably set the stage for how public engagement in wildlife should be handled in the future.
If the coyote management plan in New York State is updated, the process will likely be quite different. One leader of the 1991 planning process stated that today their strategy would also include aspects such as focus groups, social media, and targeted surveys of key stakeholders. Another key difference is that there is seemingly greater contempt for coyotes today, especially throughout the sporting community. It is very possible that any protections argued for in the 1991 meetings would now be opposed. If this case resurfaces, it is likely to be extremely challenging and controversial. We can only hope that it would be approached as comprehensively and innovatively as it was in 1991.
Status and Impacts of Eastern Coyotes in Northern New York (1991). Bureau of Wildlife, New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation and the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Department of Natural Resources, New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. http://www.nysenvirothon.org/Referencesandother/coyotes.pdf
New York’s wildlife resources- eastern coyote (1984). Cornell Cooperative Extension, Dept. of Natural Resources, New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. http://www2.dnr.cornell.edu/ext/info/pubs/Wildlife/NYwildlife/eastern%20coyote.pdf
Batchellor, Gordon (former Chief, Bureau of Wildlife, New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation), personal communication, March 3, 2016.
Borgan, Dan. 2014. Rise of the eastern coyote - understanding coyote ecology will allow us to coexist. New York State Conservationist. http://www.dec.ny.gov/pubs/97143.html [broken link]
Curtis, Paul, D. A. Borgan, G. Batcheller. 2007. Suburban coyote management and research needs: a northeast perspective. Wildlife Damage Management Conference – Proceedings, Paper 80. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1079&context=icwdm_wdmconfproc
Inslerman, Robert A. 1991. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation - public involvement in coyote management decisions. Fifth Eastern Wildlife Damage Management Conference, Paper 22. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=ewdcc5
Informational pages - New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
- Coyote Hunting Season Regulations: http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/28945.html
- Furbearer Hunting Regulations: http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/45559.html
- Coyote Conflicts: http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/6971.html
The first version of this article was researched and written by Morgan Smith, Aaron Rogers & Terra Rentz and uploaded to Participedia for them by Morgan Smith on May 6th, 2016.
Lead Image: Eastern Coyote/NYS Department of Environmental Conservation https://goo.gl/tcyCtT
Eastern Coyote – A distinct subspecies of coyote (Canis latrans var.) native to eastern North America. Males range in weight between 35-45 pounds with females 5-10 pounds lighter. Pelt color ranges from blond, reddish brown, to dark tan with black. Most important features include erect ears and a full, “bottle-brush” tail usually held downward.
1 Furbearer – a term used by wildlife managers to identify specie that have traditionally been trapped or hunted for their fur.
2 Bounty Hunting – the capture and/or destruction of wildlife for a monetary reward. Bounties on wildlife were prohibited in New York beginning in 1971.
3 Game Species – any species of wildlife for which seasons and bag limits have been prescribed, and which are normally hunted for the purpose of sport, recreation, or food.
4(Hunting/Harvest) Seasons – a period of time when it is legal to hunt and kill a particular species of fish or wildlife.
5 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation – the state agency with trust authority to manage all of New York’s wildlife on behalf of the general public.
6 Northern Zone – The geographic delineation specified in the Eastern Coyote management plan consisting of 15,866 square miles in northern New York. This zone was defined in 1954 in Environmental Conservation Law Section 11-0103(16)(a) for the purposes of deer management and contains all or part of 14 counties.
7 Bag Limit – the maximum number of fish or game animals permitted by law to be taken (harvested) by one person in a given period of time.
8 Sportsmen - a person who hunts wildlife for consumptive or recreational purposes.