San Antonio’s Pam Harte felt compelled to tackle the controversial issue of wildlife killing contests after witnessing the weigh-in at one Texas’ biggest killing competitions in 2018.

“I saw the dead animals piled up in the back of a truck and I just knew this had to stop,” Harte said recently, recalling the encounter.

The episode moved Pam and her husband Will Harte, who now live and work on a storied West Texas ranch outside Fort Davis, to help underwrite and serve as executive producers of a graphic, 25-minute documentary that addresses the controversial issue of wildlife killing contests in Texas and beyond.

The film Wildlife Killing Contests was directed by award-winning National Geographic filmmakers Filipe deAndrade and Brian Moghari of Comfort Theory Productions. Its online debut occurred via social media in February. The official release takes place Thursday at the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital in Washington, D.C.

Wildlife killing contests in Texas and many other states challenge participants to kill as many predator species as possible within a given time frame in a quest to win large cash prizes and hunting gear, night scopes, and firearms. Cash payouts can exceed $50,000 awarded for those with the heftiest bounty or most animals killed.

Coyotes, bobcats, wolves, and foxes are the most frequent targets of the contests, which are legal on public and private lands in more than 40 states.

Harte said she first heard about the contests while serving on the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s Diversity Advisory Committee. A TPWD staffer expressed concern about the rapid growth of the killing contests in Texas, which can number an estimated 600 contests a year, according to the documentary.

“I couldn’t believe it, so I attended the San Angelo Big Bobcat Contest in January 2018, and again in February 2018, and then again in March 2019,” she said, adding that about 700 teams competed at each event. “They were all lined up in a parking lot at the Tom Green County 4-H events center with dead animals everywhere.”

Soon, the Hartes had raised $120,000 and developed an initial film trailer for the documentary, leading to more funding and the engagement of deAndrade and Moghari. Filming began in late 2019.

They later partnered with ProjectCoyote.org, which is part of the National Coalition to End Wildlife Killing Contests, an alliance of national and state organizations working to permanently abolish contests that promote the killing of bobcats, coyotes, foxes, mountain lions, wolves, and other species for cash and prizes.

The film opens with a warning that graphic content might disturb viewers. In the first few minutes, hunters are filmed killing coyotes. An armed man scoops a dead coyote from the ground, laughing as its guts spill from its corpse. Another hunter plows over a coyote in a speeding snowmobile, retrieves the animal’s wounded body by its hind legs, then bashes the coyote’s head against the vehicle. Later in the film, a man in a Jeep filmed while participating in a killing contest muses, “What’s the plan? Kill s—. Get money.”

Hunters opposed to such contests in the film and elsewhere point out that such events give a black eye to the sport of hunting and label the contests as blood sport.

While the events are sometimes staged as fundraisers for volunteer fire departments or other small town beneficiaries, the largest contests promote themselves as paydays for hunters by awarding tens of thousands of dollars in prize money to those who shoot and kill the most coyotes, bobcats, and mountain lions.

In the West Texas Big Bobcat Contest, which finished its 2021 season March 13 in San Angelo, 1,498 teams paid $250 each to enter three contests, according to its website.

The 2021 payout to winners in contests in January, February, and March totaled $344,540 in prize money, with the March champion netting more than $33,000 in cash.

“Do you think you have what it takes to win the highest paying hunting contest in the country? Then put your money where your mouth is, and enter the WTBBC,” the contest Facebook page teases.

Apart from the financial incentives, contest participants cite predator management as a rationale for these events, saying they’re necessary to protect livestock from animals such as coyotes.

Organizers for the West Texas Big Bobcat contest declined repeated requests for an interview, responding via Facebook, “We are not interested in [being] part of your story. Looks like it’s already starting off to be false. It’s not a ‘Killing Contest.’ It’s called Predator Control.”

Wildlife biologists and scientific studies both disagree that such contests are an effective way to control predators.

Various scientific studies cited by Texas Parks & Wildlife in a statement show that general predator removal applied randomly with no specific management objective is not an effective way to control predators or reduce livestock predation.

“Such haphazard removal of individuals can have unintended consequences such as disrupting population age and social structure, as well as increasing litter sizes of certain targeted predators,” according to the TPWD statement.

The bodies of bobcats and foxes from a 2019 contest are splayed across the bed of a pickup truck. Credit: Courtesy Image

While killing contests of non-game animals are legal and no current plans exist to change regulations related to animals targeted by killing contests, “TPWD does not encourage indiscriminate predator control with no clear, measurable management goal to be reached,” the statement continued.

One longtime killing contest participant said critics of the events come to the subject with a “very skewed mindset. … If we didn’t have these contests, there would be no goats.”

Asked why he did not want to be quoted by name as a contest participant, he replied, “Nobody wants to bring negative light on what we do for people who don’t understand it or value livestock or wildlife.”

Meanwhile, Harte said she’s been encouraged by the reaction to the movie’s informal release via social media. By the end of February, a petition to ban wildlife killing contests on federal lands had surpassed its goal of 10,000 signatures and now exceeds 55,000 signatures.

“The new goal is 75,000 signatures, and we hope to achieve that within a short amount of time, then continue increasing to an ultimate goal of over 500,000 signatures,” Harte said.

Harte said she intends to present the signatures to elected officials and the U.S. Secretary of Interior in an effort to ban the contests. A draft of a state bill is currently circulating in Austin.

Monika Maeckle

Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...