The Realities of a Hunting Bounty

February 13, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

The shear principle of wildlife management makes it a work in progress, much like any other modern process of continued evaluation and testing and trying. What was considered acceptable yesterday may fall into the realm of objectionable in short order.

Such is the case with bounties. Bounties, whether for gophers, skunks, rabbits or coyotes, are not a new phenomenon. They have been around in one form or another since the settling of North Dakota’s prairies.

The state Game and Fish Department itself was a willing, and then a reluctant participant in the bounty system until 1961, when the North Dakota legislature decided to stop using state money to pay bounties. Prior to that point, the state paid out more than $2 million in bounties for fox, coyote and other species, with little to show for it. In fact, the fox population likely expanded considerably in the years prior to 1961.

Over the past year I’ve had many questions about bounties and it’s time to take a closer look at why bounties are no longer considered a scientifically efficient or accepted method of controlling a wildlife population.

The biology of a bounty

A bounty in its simplest form is the payment of money as an incentive to get people to harvest what could be termed as harmful wildlife species – something that hurts either game species or farm operations. Since North Dakota became a state, wolves, coyotes, fox, skunks, rattlesnakes, jackrabbits, crows, gophers and several other species were on the list of animals for which the state at one time or another paid a bounty.
A bounty was probably part of the reason wolves were eliminated from the state, and most people thought that was a good thing. Until the coyotes started moving in.

In the 1940s and ‘50s, driven by the prospect of bounties, people used airplanes and poisons to subdue the coyote population. At the time some people thought that was a good thing. Until the fox population expanded across the state.

From the mid-1940s until 1961, the state paid out more than $500,000 in fox bounties. The number of fox turned in for bounties went from around 20,000 to 50,000 during that same time.

Clearly, using a bounty to control the fox population didn’t work. But why?

One reason is that some species, like coyotes or fox, have high reproductive and recruitment potential and their response to a temporarily reduced population in an area is to have larger litters of young.

Instead of 4-5 pups per litter, you may see 6-8 pups carrying through into the next year because of decreased competition.

Another way to visualize: next spring when you are spraying dandelions in the back yard, spray 5 percent of them, or just one square yard. Will that cure the problem? Not for long.

Even if you killed all the dandelions growing in your yard, seeds can still blow in. It would take a coordinated effort over a large area to significantly reduce dandelion potential for individual yard owners. The same goes for bounties. For fox and coyotes, biologists estimate a population reduction of half to two-thirds would be required to produce any noticeable long-term benefits.

Some people even feel that wildlife managers are against hunting predators because they don’t support bounties. That’s simply just not true. Hunting is an effective part of wildlife management, whether it’s deer, geese or coyotes. The difference with a bounty is that money, not wildlife management and recreation, becomes the priority of those participating. When this subtle shift is made, the greed of green can overshadow the goal of managed hunting and taking of animals. The goal shifts from hunters taking coyotes, to bounty hunters earning money.

The devils advocate

A follow up question is usually thrown right back on the table by bounty proponents. “Well didn’t they work years ago?” The short answer is, that depends on your definition of “work.”

For one the rules of engagement and acceptable methodology have changed. Money, whether through protecting sheep and cattle or earned via bounties was the driving force behind clearing the prairie of large predators such as wolves. The methodology was crude and many of those historical practices are now illegal.

Poisons were widely used and we now know and better understand that poisoning of animals can have detrimental effects on non-target species as well.

Putting dollar signs on wildlife in the form of a bounty erodes the value and worth of that particular fish or wildlife species, no matter if its gophers, skunks, coyotes or wolves. What sometimes happens is that otherwise legal and ethical hunters skirt their responsibility to promote a positive image of hunting, in the name of earning a reward in the form of a monetary bounty. Violating laws, both ethical and regulatory in nature, doesn’t promote the heritage of hunting positively.

Another factor against bounties is how much they actually increase the normal harvest. For instance, if the annual coyote harvest from hunting and trapping in an area is 100, how many of those animals that would have been taken anyway will be turned in for a bounty?

And how many road kills would get turned in? How many animals from out of the area? How many from out of state?

When you add up all those factors, the actual cost per additional animal taken out of a population is much higher than a single bounty payment. Over the long run, bounties just aren’t cost effective, or practically effective. That’s why the state stopped supporting them nearly 45 years ago.


4 Comments on "The Realities of a Hunting Bounty"

  1. Jim Vance on Mon, 4th Jan 2010 11:26 pm 

    I was reading your artical on how bountys don’t work. i somtimes wonder if people that are anti ever even think about what they are saying. First you say that bountys don’t work then you say that they wiped out the wolves with a bounty and thien they wiped out the coyotes with a bounty so bad that the foxes over produced. You say that bountys can wipe our a species and then you say they don’t control their numbers.
    You say that you can’t cut down on the numbers because they will just have more young and the population will stay the same. Do you honestly beleave that if you let everone shoot all the deer they want deer would just have more fawns and the population would stay the same. Of course you don’t but it made your bounty not working sound good.
    Don’t worry about it you will get away with this bull because it it is not politicly corect to correct an anti no matter how much they twist the facts to prove a GOOD POINT.

  2. jim white on Wed, 15th Sep 2010 11:10 am 

    If you will read between the lines you will see that the state decided they no longer wanted to pay out that bounty money. Maybe the land owners would like to foot the bill. Yea, right!

  3. Stetson on Mon, 13th Dec 2010 10:08 am 

    this was awesome because I uses the imformation for my english class

  4. Steve Homola on Mon, 31st Jan 2011 3:45 am 

    Of course bounties work. The reason the state doesn’t support them is because it costs the state MONEY. That should be obvious to anyone with a slight amount of intelligence. Of course they would never say that outright, so they come up with EXCUSES. One excuse I heard was, “All a bounty would do is inspire weekend warriors who wouldn’t be killing a coyote anyways.” Yea right…

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