Predator Bounties: A Mixed Bag of Success and Questions

“Do incentive programs work? Yes and no, but it depends.”

Predator Bounties: A Mixed Bag of Success and Questions

Predator control programs are largely used to protect other species.

Bounty programs for predators have been around for hundreds of years, literally, with mixed results. The first known incentive offered to hunters and landowners to kill predators or vermin came from the founder of Pennsylvania in the late 1600s. Lately, incentive programs have been created, extended and offered in several states for coyotes, feral hogs and wolves. For more than 300 years, we’ve exchanged money or rewards for animals that, in many instances, find a way to return, rebound or get reintroduced.

The crux of a bounty program always is the same: safeguarding, protecting or preserving something. In the case of canis, ursus and felidae in the olden days, it was to protect humans, valuable livestock and game animals. Not necessarily in that order every time, of course. But stories of man-eating wolves, bears and lions resonated when it came time to petition the state for such a program, or for officials to present their case to the public. Lest an innocent woman or unassuming child be snatched into the woods to ungodly horrors, these creatures must be eradicated. Money talked.

It still does in several states throughout the country. Today’s targets aren’t bears or mountain lions, which have hunting seasons in most states and stiff protections in others. Grizzly bears? Forget that, sir. Lawsuits about the grizz and its similarly uber-protected buddy, the wolf, get kicked around in court more than punts between two bad football teams. Today’s incentive programs — the modern, safer, sanitized version of bounty — mostly focus on coyotes, feral swine and other critters such as nutria and nest predators.

Do incentive programs work? Yes and no, but it depends. That’s the safest answer, and probably the most realistic answer. They work if your goal is to take out a specific animal and the reward, incentive or gift is enough to garner participation. They work if the goal — protection of a species, such as deer or elk — can be measured, or it’s believed to be working. No, they sometimes don’t completely work because hunter interest or success can’t keep up with the animals’ reproduction or ability to survive. Louisiana’s nutria bounty is an example of that; hunters have been fairly successful for several years, but the watery rodents still are there chewing the marsh vegetation to shreds. And as noted in a South Carolina report about its coyote incentive program, myriad factors including weather that affects hunter interest and natural mortality of the species must be considered.

There is no clear-cut, one-size-fits-all incentive program, just as Minnesota’s management for whitetail deer isn’t the same as that of Mississippi. What works for bears in West Virginia isn’t the same as in Maine or Michigan. Incentive programs for predators must be carefully crafted with specifics tailored for that state and species, along with a wildlife agency’s careful tap-dance amid the public response and dealing with legislators and back-room decision makers. Even hunting seasons experience that rodeo. 

When Florida instituted its black bear hunting season in 2015, it was in four areas with a hard quota that was met in just a couple days. Data had been gathered for the hunt for two decades. It clearly met the goals. The anti-hunting public blowback was intense, and legislative response wasn’t great. Serious threats of lawsuits reportedly were made with the intent to gum up the process, including financially. The 2015 bear hunt was the last, despite a population that easily could handle it.

Wildlife management isn’t easy. Never has been, from the earliest days of predator bounties.

Centuries-Old Incentives

Pennsylvania Game News reported in a fascinating 2020 story that when William Penn, founder of the colony, arrived in 1682, within a year he established a bounty on wolves. The area known as Penn’s Woods was rife with game and predators. Penn offered 10-15 shillings for a wolf, with females earning more. That was the first known bounty in the area, and possibly the first or among the first in what eventually would become the United States.

Fifteen shillings at the time added up to almost $4, based on some accounts that a shilling was worth about a quarter of a dollar. Either way, it was a lot of money for early settlers to make just to shoot a wolf. The incentive program was one of many that eventually were used in the colonies, territories and onward in the states. These bounties, along with large stalking parties during day or night, were common in Europe for wolves, bears and feral hogs. Things weren’t much different across the pond back then in regard to predators or scary tales that riled up the masses. Today, bounty or incentive programs continue in various forms for different animals, and for different reasons.

— In Idaho, the state wildlife agency helped fund a bounty on wolves paid by the Foundation for Wildlife Management, a private organization. Wolves killed in elk recovery zones earned a payment. The elk zones were targeted to help the cows and calves become more established, thus helping the overall populations recover. The program received criticism from pro-wolf activists.

— In South Dakota, the Game, Fish & Parks Commission extended support and funding for the popular Nest Predator Bounty Program through 2026. The program begins each March 1 for youths age 17-under, and is open to all South Dakota residents from April 1 to July 1, or whenever the maximum payout of $500,000 is zeroed. Targeted nest predators include raccoons, striped skunks, badgers, opossums and red foxes, with $10 paid per tail. The limit of 50,000 tails was quickly reached in 2023 and the program closed for the year. The goal is to help reduce nest predators as a way to enhance pheasant and duck nesting success, while also encouraging trapping. Participants can submit up to $590 worth of tails per household. 

— In Utah, the Department of Wildlife Resources predator-control program provides incentives for hunters to remove coyotes. Participants receive up to $50 for each properly documented coyote killed in Utah. The program requires an online training session and registration, check-in or reporting via the Utah Coyote Bounty Hunter smartphone app, and a statewide map with information is available to hunters. The coyote program is part of the state’s 13-year-old Mule Deer Protection Act. Its primary goal is to remove coyotes from areas where they may prey on mule deer. The Utah Legislature set aside $500,000 for payments from the Utah General Fund and also approved a $5 fee increase to all big-game hunting permits to help pay for predator removal efforts. The state wildlife agency tracks harvest and participation and provides payments to participants. About 110,100 coyotes have been reported killed since the program began. 

— In Louisiana, the Coastal Nutria Control Program was established in 2002 with a goal of removing 400,000 nutria each season. Nutria resemble beavers or large muskrats, and they eat thousands of acres of vegetation each year. Loss of this vegetation contributes greatly to coastal erosion and decimation of the protective marshes. The program pays $6 per nutria tail to hunters and trappers registered in the program. The season is November 20 to March 31. Properties must be registered, and public land opportunities also are available. In 2021-22, state officials paid $1.22 million to 200 participants for 203,824 nutria tails. One participant turned in 9,978 tails. Impacts to wetlands vegetation losses have declined for six of the past seven years.

— In South Carolina, a coyote incentive program offers $3,000 to hunters who kill and report specially tagged coyotes. South Carolina DNR traps, tags and releases a certain number of coyotes each year. The shift to a payment came after changes related to offering a lifetime license, which was a prior incentive. The payment system has been well received, officials say, and the program since 2005 has resulted in more than 478,000 reported coyote kills. That includes trapping, during hunting seasons, on predator management permits and during night hunts. State officials say based on estimates, the overall coyote population is down by almost half since 2011.

“The total taken incidental to deer hunting is down about 49 percent since its high in 2011,” said Jay Butfiloski, the furbearer and alligator program coordinator for the South Carolina DNR. “However, other sources of coyote mortality could be displacing the number taken strictly during the deer season. Outside the traditional trapping season, property owners can get predator management permits to trap or hunt certain furbearing species outside of the trapping season. Also, night hunting regulations changed that make it easier to register a property for night hunting and anyone with permission to be on the property can hunt it during the night. Previously, you had to submit a list of hunters’ names and they had to be checked to make sure they did not have any night hunting violations. Also, you had to shoot from an elevated position that really made it sort of impractical to implement.”

Butfiloski says the DNR has provided more opportunities for landowners and hunters to pursue coyotes outside of winter hunting seasons. Deer hunters who might not want to spoil a hunt shooting a coyote now can get after them at night, during summer or at other times. Trapping also is a successful and fun option. Butfiloski also said there is no discernable trend in numbers for Upstate or Lowcountry areas of the state. Where there are more deer and deer hunters, he says, more coyotes are killed and reported, as expected. Also, more of the larger properties and hunting clubs in the Lowcountry are on deer and/or predator management programs.

Battling the Pushback

Aside from the tap-dancing around anti-hunters, more aggressive pushback from some organizations and doubts or concerns from legislators and agency officials, one of the biggest drawbacks is not being able to definitively prove the incentive programs work. With wildlife, that’s almost always impossible. Does a bag limit change for wild turkeys result in more turkeys? Can’t say. Does an antler restriction prove without a doubt that an older age class of bucks has thrived and is helping the population? Can’t say. It’s always estimates, the data shows this or that, and most of the time nothing is absolutely definitive.

The only definitive thing is that animals — coyotes in Utah, nutria in Louisiana, wolves in Idaho — are dead. Is that a positive? If your goal is to reduce those numbers and try to hit management goals, yes. Taking out hundreds of thousands of nutrias each year certainly helps Louisiana’s marshes. Removing more than 11,000 coyotes in Utah each year likely has helped numerous mule deer and other game animals. South Carolina’s deer hunting continues to be strong, no doubt in part because of its successful coyote incentive program despite more pressure each year from hunters moving into the state. Yet, the naysayers will push back and cite the money paid out, loss of species that are part of an overall web of nature, and that incentives are just not feasible.

In South Carolina, I asked Butfiloski whether the coyote incentive program has provided some provable data or info that other game animals are thriving (quail, small game, deer). And, also, whether human interactions — loss of pets, for example, to coyotes, or livestock, chickens, etc. — has declined? As in many instances with incentive programs, from years ago to today, those are tough questions to easily answer due to other factors.

“Not especially,” Butfiloski said. “It’s tough to reliably prove that the incentive provided positive effects for other species when there is so much other outside noise that could also be affecting those other species (amount and type of agriculture, timber harvest activities and timing, human development, etc.). It’s also going to be tough to say that the incentive helped with nuisance coyote issues, as we are in a very rapidly growing state, so more people, more problems, so to speak. In 2000, there were 4.02 million people in South Carolina; today there are more than 5.2 million people.”

Bounties and incentives are hundreds of years old. They’re not going away, and as several programs throughout the country have shown, they’re popular with hunters and some state wildlife managers. How these incentive programs will change in the future remains to be seen.


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