By MANNIX PORTERFIELD
for the Daily Telegraph
Bounty hunters once prowled the badlands of the Old West, beefing up the often-sparse ranks of sheriffs to corral the bad guys under the blessing of America’s highest court.
Dead or alive, it made no difference. The pay specified on the wanted posters was the same.
Now, a new varmint is on the loose, this one in the hills of West Virginia, and once again, a bounty might be the answer to ridding it, or at least diminishing its population.
Scientifically, it’s known as canis latrans, or “barking dog” in Latin.
Most folks just call it the coyote.
Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick says the critter is howling in all 55 counties, posing a threat to farm animals and domestic pets alike.
“The coyote has been a problem in West Virginia since the 1980s,” Helmick says.
“Prior to that, we weren’t exposed to them. Didn’t know what they were. What their habits were.”
A coyote roamed across Upshur County back in 1970, killing hundreds of sheep, until he was trapped by the use of the scent of a female. That one was considered an anomaly.
Before the coyote began to proliferate, Helmick says dogs were the worst predator.
“But dogs have been sent to a back row seat by the coyote,” the commissioner said.
“We spend a significant amount of money on predator control. About half-a-million dollars. The feds helped us out a few years ago but aren’t doing anything at all now. We’ve lost the federal support.”
Which means the state has to fend for itself.
“Coyotes are our biggest problem,” Helmick said.
“More of them are being born than we’re removing. They’re winning the battle.”
Helmick believes he has an answer, using a new tack in the war, one that will inspire hunters to fan across the woods in droves in search of the coyotes — and some big bucks as rewards. Paying a bounty is a means of providing an incentive, just as the U.S. Supreme Court did back in 1872, when it authorized the use of men to track desperados for rewards.
Under Helmick’s plan, say that trappers ensnare a live coyote in Pocahontas County, then turn it in to conservation officers, who then release it in Raleigh, after the animal’s ears have been marked with a special identifying number.
Bringing him in could fetch a reward of $100. Or $500. Perhaps, even as high as $1,000. Whatever it takes to make the hunt worthwhile.
Therein lies the magic of this approach.
Once word gets out, says Helmick, hunters will seize on the chance to turn some quick profit by bagging a coyote with one of the numbers. Possibly, the hunter may never shoot one with the telltale number in its ear. But only after the animal is felled will he know for sure.
“Hunters will be out there all the time, looking for this type of opportunity, and will probably kill another 25 trying to get to that one, or maybe even kill 100 of them,” he said.
Helmick hasn’t decided how much the numbered coyotes will be worth, and is still ironing out the specifics, taking input from county commissioners across the state, particularly where the varmints are a special nuisance.
Helmick says he is especially concerned about the predators making it difficult to expand the sheep industry, one of his goals since becoming agriculture commissioner in January.
“I know we have a problem with the sheep industry,” he said.
“And the coyote is not all the problem, but it’s a significant part. For the rebirth or growth of the sheep industry, it would be almost impossible with the amount of coyotes we now have on the loose.”
Could an enterprising hunter fake the identification number embedded in a coyote’s ear?
Hardly, says Helmick, pointing out that the Division of Natural Resources would register certain numbers in coyotes released in specific counties, and they wouldn’t be in any recognizable sequence.
“Conservation officers will know those numbers, and whether that number coincides with their list,” he said.
In some parts of the nation, coyotes also have been known to attack toddlers, but so far, there is no recorded instance of that in West Virginia.
Even so, the animal appears to be getting braver in his assaults against animals, even invading the cities.
How wily is the coyote?
Helmick provided a personal anecdote. Son Brian had rigged a bell at home so that the family tomcat could ring it when he wanted to go outside, and sound a similar device on the other side of the home in the South Hills neighborhood of Charleston.
One night, the cat announced his wish to step outdoors. As soon as he did, a coyote, perched on the sun deck, pounced on him.
“That coyote had figured out the bell,” Helmick said.
“He knew that sooner or later, that cat was going out. He had watched before when the bell rang.”