The Bounty Hunter
From time to time we receive questions on why the Department doesn’t offer a bounty to control predators. At first glance the concept sounds simple. Offer folks a little money to turn in raccoon tails, snake heads and coyote ears and they’ll harvest more. If they harvest more, that means there will be more deer, turkey, quail and rabbit for hunters to harvest. Sounds simple enough.
I Was A Preschool Bounty Hunter
Heck, in the early 1960s, when I was growing up in southeast Nebraska I was actually a preschool bounty hunter. Unfortunately, there will never be a TV show about my bounty hunter escapades. My very first recollection of wildlife was a coyote den that each year we smoked the coyotes from and turned in for a bounty. Despite a yearly raid on the den, there always seemed to be coyotes in it each spring. It was always my duty to shine a light down one entrance to the den and yell out if I saw the coyotes or catch the pups if they attempted to escape. It was very exciting to see the glow of the pup’s eyes as they passed by this particular den entrance. Fortunately, I never did have to catch one!
We would go with my grandfather to turn in the coyote ears at the courthouse to collect the bounty. With the few dollars we earned we would head for the drive-in and partake in the treasured root-beer float. Such were the days in the life of a preschool bounty hunter. In spite of the bounty we still had coyotes and fox raid the chicken yard on a regular basis. Enough coyotes survived the bounty for the local coyote hunters to still pursue their prey. So, bounty hunting was a paying proposition for a preschooler, but did it get rid of the coyotes?
What History Tells Us
We only need to look at history to see bounties are ineffective at improving game species, are costly and do little to recruit new hunters. A cash reward for dead animals is hardly a new concept. A variety of wildlife has had a price on its head as early as the 17th century when the first white settlers arrived in North America. Even Missouri had a bounty for coyotes back in the 1850s and 1930s(for the record, I didn’t have a chance to participate in Missouri’s coyote bounty). In the past, states have offered bounties on coyotes, rattlesnakes, copperheads, groundhogs, beavers, foxes, cougars, wolves, bear and even porcupines. Some states still offer bounties to “control” coyotes, gophers, nutria, beaver and ground squirrels.
Do they work?
The short answer is "no," at least not if the goal is to reduce a predator's population, recruit new hunters or improve game populations. In addition, there may be unintended consequences and your time can be spent doing better activities.
Let’s look at what happened in Missouri when we had a bounty system on coyotes from 1936-1947. A study of this bounty system showed that while it resulted in the destruction of large numbers of predators, it did not reduce the damage to livestock or the number of complaints. “Eleven years of bounty figures offers no evidence that the population of coyotes has been reduced thereby.”
They also compared the bounty system to hiring “government trappers” to respond to landowner complaints of coyotes killing livestock. They determined it was effective in reducing problem-causing coyotes, but was too expensive for the counties to continue and did nothing to reduce the overall coyote population. It was noted at that time the most cost-effective method is what the Department does presently, train landowners to trap problem predators which are killing livestock.
Animals living in the wild operate under their own set of rules governed by the cycles of habitat, weather and food availability. Populations fluctuate; predators eat their prey. Under heavy pressure, furbearers will move or mate at an earlier age and have larger litters. Reduce the population of one predator and others may spike. For example, remove foxes from an area and you may see an increase in smaller rodents that eat quail eggs. Remove coyotes and you could see an increase in foxes, skunks, possums and raccoons.
It’s much easier to point the finger at the big, bad coyote, evil bobcat, rugged red-tailed hawk or rascally raccoon than look at habitat conditions that affect the nesting success of quail, turkey and other early successional wildlife.
A better alternative is to “predator proof” your farm by improving wildlife habitat. Now, you won’t exactly “predator proof” the farm but you can definitely make it better for wildlife and harder for predators by providing the types of habitat quail, turkey, deer and rabbits need.
For turkeys I’m a big fan of improving nesting and brooding habitat by planting native warm-season grasses and wildflowers; edge feathering; timber stand improvement; and woodland restoration. The same can be said for folks interested in managing their property for deer. Protective cover for fawns is absolutely critical so plant several small fields or field corners to native warm-season grass. Timber stand improvement and small clear-cuts are also very beneficial to deer and turkey. Heck, the biggest buck I ever saw was in the middle of an area edge feathered. I don’t have a clue how he got in there but he exploded out of the patch in a split second. Periodic management with prescribed fire, managed grazing, strip disking and invasive plant control is also important. Sounds a lot like quail habitat doesn’t it?
Now there’s nothing wrong with furbearer trapping or varmint hunting in the fall and winter. In fact, fur prices were pretty good last year. Raccoon pelts averaged almost $12 and red fox was over $33 per pelt. The simple truth is trapping and varmint hunting provides a great recreational activity and a little income on the side. Just don’t think controlling predators, especially with a bounty, will improve game production. Good habitat is still the key.