Scott Smith | ASSOCIATED PRESS

FRESNO, Calif. — Organized coyote hunts that award prizes to the top marksman have sparked a culture clash in California between wildlife advocates who value the animals as an essential part of the landscape and people who view coyotes as wily varmints to be hunted down to protect livestock.

The derbies award shooters who bag the tallest pile of coyote carcasses with up to $500 or prizes such as belt buckles, camouflage hunting gear and rifles. On Wednesday, the California Fish and Game Commission will consider banning prize hunts for coyotes as well as foxes and bobcats, which also are legal to kill year round in unlimited numbers.

The ban would be the first in the nation, according to Camilla Fox, executive director of Project Coyote, which petitioned the state to end coyote hunts for prizes.

The hunts are a cruel throwback to the days before dog- and cock-fighting were banned, said Fox. "We should also ban wildlife-killing contests for the same reasons," she said. "It's immoral, reprehensible and something that should be part of our history books."

California cattle ranchers lost more than $4 million in 2010 to predators, and coyotes accounted for the largest number of attacks, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent figures.

That reality — and the culture of ranchland life in the West — has spurred coyote prize hunts to spread across California over the years.

Hunter and cattleman Buck Parks said he and his neighbors in rural Northern California won't turn a blind eye to coyotes killing livestock and wildlife. He said people opposed to coyote hunting don't witness the damage they do firsthand.

Parks is also president of the Pit River Rod and Gun Club, which has drawn protests for its hunt based in the Modoc County's town of Adin. Parks said the club will abide by the commission's vote and stop awarding the top hunter at its derby in February, if necessary. That won't end coyote hunting, he said.

"We're not focused on that one weekend hunt," Parks said. "We're focused on trying to encourage folks to get out and help manage these predators by hunting them."

Coyote hunting happens in most states across the country with no bag limit, but Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity said prize hunts are most common in the western states. In Idaho, environmentalists blocked a wolf and coyote derby from happening next month on vast wilderness areas controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Organizers say they'll hold the contest elsewhere.

California is in the process of estimating the state's coyote population, but Scott Gardner, a senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the species is not threatened or endangered, and may even be on the rise. The highly adaptable wolflike animals frequent not only ranchlands and forests but also suburbs and cities the length of California.

Coyote advocates called on the commission to ban prize hunts on grounds they do not reflect good sportsmanship. Arguing there's no proof the hunts prevent livestock losses, they say coyotes play an important role in nature, feeding on rodents and dead animals.

The call for a ban was spurred in part by the fear that coyote hunters could mistakenly kill gray wolves, which this year were listed as endangered in California. Gray wolves were hunted to extinction almost a century ago in California, but in the past three years, a GPS-outfitted wolf known as OR-7 has been crossing from Oregon into Northern California.

Coyote hunter Curtis Wright, a 32-year-old electrical engineer from Palmdale, sees no harm in the hunts and no logic to ending them. On his best day, he said he killed 14 coyotes, and he has come home with his share of cash prizes and belt buckles.

Wright, who runs a website titled California Coyote Hunting, said he receives regular calls for help from ranchers whose cattle and chickens are menaced by coyotes. He offers his hunting services for free and makes jerky from coyote meat.

Coyote hunts have become so popular that they are held just about every month somewhere in California and nearby states, Wright said. "It is never about the money or prizes," he added. "For me, it is about getting out in the field and friendly contests among other hunters."