On Friday evening, dozens of local hunters will check in for the Dog Days of Winter Coyote Derby, an annual 48-hour competitive coyote hunting contest hosted in Dillon.
The goal? Shoot as many coyotes as you can, wherever you can, legally, so long as you make it to the weekend check-ins on time.
Weston Basso, 19, took over as derby organizer at the end of December. The Nevada native has only been in Montana for six months, but he said it’s clear this event has been a big deal for the Dillon community since it started five years ago.
“Dillon is such a big hunting and ranching community, so they really get behind this and join in,” Basso said.
That’s especially true for Ken Visser, an assistant organizer of the derby and owner of Visser Angus, a Dillon cattle outfit. He said he’s been a part of the agricultural industry his whole life, and dealing with coyote predation on livestock has been a part of it.
Visser said his cattle have already started calving, which is early compared to the February-through-April calving season common for most western Montana ranchers. And he says cattle are at increased risk of coyote predation during calving season, as coyotes and their pups often gang up on calves and their mothers.
“They go after calves and their afterbirth," Visser said. "I’ve even seen a mother cow trample her calf to death trying to protect it.”
To protect livestock like cattle and sheep from coyotes, Visser said many ranchers use guard animals. He said he prefers to shoot coyotes on sight.
“They’re a vermin, so we can shoot them all year long,” Visser said.
In Montana, coyotes are classified as predators, meaning they aren’t managed by the state and can be hunted year-round, according to Vanna Boccadori, a wildlife biologist for Montana FWP and Greg Lemon, FWP's spokesperson. Boccadori said the reason animals like coyotes, skunks, and weasels are classified this way and unregulated is because they are considered agricultural pests.
“The state doesn’t manage predators, so landowners can manage them whenever a problem comes up,” Boccadori said.
Lemon added that coyotes have long proven that they persist even with a tremendous amount of hunting, another reason why they aren't managed by Montana FWP.
While Lemona and Boccadori acknowledged coyotes can cause problems for ranchers during the calving season, Boccadori emphasized that coyotes in general are not a problem animal.
But she also noted that recreation has been built around hunting, trapping, and calling coyotes. And while it may sound counter-intuitive to some, that recreational heritage helps not only control but also preserve populations of the canines.
“There’s a conservation mindset around coyotes," Boccadori said. "Folks value the opportunity to hunt them and value keeping them on the landscape.”
Lemon also noted that coyote hunting is a popular sport a lot of Montanans are into and that requires a lot of skill.
In other areas of the state, coyote hunting derbies have been controversial. Visser admitted that not all Dillon locals agree with the hunting competition, and the derby has received some blowback in the form of an online petition opposing the hunt.
But for Visser and Basso, the derby brings fun to the fight against livestock predation in Dillon and surrounding communities.
“It’s a time for friends and neighbors to join up and...compete with or against each other,” Visser said. “And it’s a boom for our local economy.”
The one- or two-hunter teams will be briefed Friday on the rules of the derby, according to Basso. Once the hunt begins that evening, hunters who have permission from private landowners or a conservation license are free to hunt on both private and public land for coyotes, Basso said.
The first check-in will be Friday night starting at 5 p.m. There will be two more check-ins on Saturday starting at 5 p.m. and Sunday starting at noon. Basso said hunters must bring their dead coyotes to the check-ins on time or they will be disqualified.
This year’s prizes include two rifles for the team with the most coyotes, two revolvers for second place, two removable blade knives for third, a YETI "submersible duffle" for whoever shoots the biggest coyote, and other door prizes, Basso said. Some of these items were donated, but most were provided by Rocky Mountain Supply.
At the derby, there will also be a fur trader if hunters want to sell their coyote pelts, which are thickest this time of year, Basso said. He also said this will be the first year the derby’s stats and winners will be recorded.
Due to the ongoing popularity of the coyote hunting derby, Basso said he and other derby organizers are looking at starting up other Dillon-based hunting competitions, but nothing is in the works quite yet.