Back to Stories

How Bills To Stop Killing Coyotes With Snowmobiles Went Down In Flames

Former Montana lawmaker questions what kind of religious people who worship Creator would condone torturing living products of creation?

In 2019, former Montana Sen. Mike Phillips, also a renowned wildlife biologist who led the wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park, introduced bills to outlaw running over coyotes with snowmobiles. It failed. Photo by Chris Smith/Creative Commons
In 2019, former Montana Sen. Mike Phillips, also a renowned wildlife biologist who led the wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park, introduced bills to outlaw running over coyotes with snowmobiles. It failed. Photo by Chris Smith/Creative Commons

by Todd Wilkinson

Among the proudest moments in my young, coming-of-age years were two events: passing the hunter’s safety test as a newly minted teenager in the Upper Midwestern state where I grew up, and earning the state-issued permit to drive a snowmobile, which I got prior to securing an auto driver's license, so I could get to hockey practice on outdoor ice in winter.

Regarding hunter’s safety, our instructors were people of esteem in my small town. Along with weekly sessions about hunting regulations and gun safety when handling firearms were messages of ethics dispensed as if we were in a church pew receiving the Ten Commandments.

What they said was: have respect for the animals you are pursuing; don’t kill creatures you don’t plan to eat; perfect your aim so that the deer, duck or upland game bird can be humanely brought down with a minimum number of shots, follow the law, engage in fair chase, use common sense, and don’t do things that cause nonhuman beings to needlessly suffer.

Adhering to the above, we were told, was part of the venerable tradition of hunting being carried forward. Passing the written hunter’s safety test and then spending a few hours afterward at the local shooting range, firing upon clay pigeons with shotguns and taking aim at targets with rifles and .22s, was, for a 13-year-old, a rite of passage—a thing of honor.

Little did I know that the principles were actually key ideas engrained in The Public Trust Doctrine, principles of fair chase hunting, the writing of ecologist Aldo Leopold, and what later emerged as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. All of these, leaders of hunting say, are an outgrowth of concepts discussed by Theodore Roosevelt and others who founded the Boone and Crockett Club, which argued for hunting and public ownership of wildlife being part of modern, professional, science-based wildlife management.  

A pair of great books to read are those authored by the late Montana conservationist and long-time employee of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Jim Posewitz. They are Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting  (once given to every student enrolled in hunter safety classes in Montana) and the sequel, Inherit The Hunt.

A few years ago, I wrote a story for Mountain Journal about stains on hunting culture triggered by well-publicized acts of unethical behavior. In this internet age, with some citizens doing anything possible to achieve their 15 minutes of glory, there’s been a proliferation of videos and photos circulated on social media. In these snippets of self-promotion, hunters often portray themselves as heroes and regularly portray some animals as being far more dangerous than they actually are.

By design, some of the videos are intended to engender viewers’ fears toward certain species. They advance the misguided perception that the woods are not safe were if not for hunters slaying the scary beasts and making them afraid of us. Their fantastical rhetoric suggests that around every corner lurks man-eating bears, wolves and cougars that must be brought down by a sportsman in order to protect not only men, women and children, but big game herds, pets and livestock.

Like a lot of myths, those have gained traction, particularly among naive and gullible urban newcomers who are resettling in record numbers in the Northern Rockies.

Out of this firmament has arisen a voyeuristic form of entertainment—videos posted that show shooters, often backed by commercial advertisers, engaging in everything from using prairie dogs as live targets to killing as many coyotes as possible.

In Idaho, there was an incident whereby a member of the state fish and game commission had gone to Africa, killed a family of baboons with his bow and arrows—adults and offspring—then posed for a picture with the dead primates, posting it on social media where it went viral. It attracted such public outrage that the state wildlife commissioner resigned from his politically appointed post.

Around the same time, a couple of homemade videos circulated on YouTube showing people near Pinedale, Wyoming—and elsewhere—chasing down coyotes on their snowmobiles, pursuing them until the animals were so exhausted they couldn’t run any more. In a few video instances, they unwisely recorded themselves mercilessly running over the coyotes with their snowmachines to kill them rather than putting them out of their misery with a bullet.

The makers of the videos portrayed their activities as a form of hunting and indeed they racked up plenty of views. In the Mountain Journal story, we featured one of the videos until it was removed by the people who made it because they came under intense scrutiny. Later, Youtube removed a video that it deemed offensive. But it turns out that chasing down coyotes with snowmobiles is an annual sport and no secret in many corners of the West.

Surprising to me is that it’s not only culturally condoned like predator killing contests are, but legal in some states even though it is an overt violation of many sacred tenets of the North American Model of Wildlife Management. Prominent lifelong hunters I interviewed in the piece, including three former chairmen of the state game commissions in Florida, Oregon and California, said it gives real “hunting” a repulsive black eye—at a time when the number of hunters in the US continues to drop.

In the aftermath of the story, which generated hundreds of thousands of reads, it was republished in High Country News and spawned mention in several media outlets. State Rep. Mike Yin of Jackson Hole, Wyoming and another, State Sen. Mike Phillips of Bozeman, Montana, drafted bills they planned to introduce to their respective state legislatures outlawing this so-called “sport.”

The bills, however, not only failed to get fair public airing but also a vote before their legislative bodies. Read this report from the Jackson Hole News & Guide headlined “Bill to Ban Coyote Whacking is Run Down.”
“I was disgusted as people—my fellow elected officials—who claim to worship the Creator would have such vile disregard for the products of Creation.” — Mike Phillips, wildlife biologist and former Montana senator
Meanwhile, in Montana, Phillips, a lifelong hunter, renowned wildlife biologist and conservationist, made several attempts to get a couple of bills passed but he, too, ran into a brick wall of opposition from his Republican colleagues. One Senate committee chairman told him that allowing the bill to be openly debated and then put to a vote in the full Senate would cost him standing with his GOP peers. Many of them, he said, claim that the only good coyotes are dead coyotes—the implication being that people who make sport out of running coyotes down with snowmobiles are giving the animals the treatment they deserve.

Few Montanans and other citizens in the Northern Rockies were aware of Phillips’ tribulations because little coverage of his efforts were reported in the media. To this day in Montana and Wyoming it is legal for people on snowmobiles to chase down coyotes and kill them by running them over.  If the snowmobiles were big enough, wolves in Wyoming could be pursued and killed the same way.

Were a person to do that with an elk, deer, pronghorn or even someone’s pet dog, horse or cow, the perpetrators could face a variety of penalties and fines plus public scorn.

Phillips told me at the time he was not protesting the hunting of coyotes and other predators if done according to ethical standards. But he believes that chasing coyotes down with snowmobiles as a kind of fun sport in Montana is barbaric and a form of torture that has no place in the modern world.

“I understand that some people just can’t get over their hatred of coyotes, but all wildlife species should enjoy the benefit of professional wildlife management, which has legal and ethical rules for engagement,” he said at the time. “Running down coyotes or any other animal, for that matter, with snowmobiles, isn’t ethical hunting nor is it responsible wildlife management. That kind of activity should be illegal and if it’s not called out as reprehensible and made illegal, then the message is it’s condoned.”

At a recent Mountain Journal-hosted public event, “Night of the Wolves,” Phillips was asked about his saga and what he said drew gasps from the
Mike Phillips howls and the crowd howls back summoning Doug Smith and Pat Byorth to the Ellen Theatre stage during MoJo's Jan. 10, 2023 "Night of the Wolves" event. Photo by Joseph T. O'Connor
Mike Phillips howls and the crowd howls back summoning Doug Smith and Pat Byorth to the Ellen Theatre stage during MoJo's Jan. 10, 2023 "Night of the Wolves" event. Photo by Joseph T. O'Connor
audience. Every day that legislators meet in session at the state capitol in Helena, he said, two daily rituals are followed. The first is a group prayer and the second is standing together and partaking in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Phillips to this day is incredulous that legislators who pray to God, utter the Pledge of Allegiance and claim to abide by hunting ethics, would not condemn and outlaw that form of persecution against coyotes. After his bills failed to get a vote, he told me in 2019: “I was disgusted as people—my fellow elected officials—who claim to worship the Creator would have such vile disregard for the products of Creation.” He said the failure to outlaw coyote killing with snowmobiles using them as a weapon, should “be an embarrassment to the people of Montana.”

Here’s what Phillips told the crowd at MoJo’s “Night of the Wolves” about his experience in Helena. We are providing it here so that people in attendance and others watching the livestream understand the context:

“In the 2019 [legislative] session, I brought a … bill that said you can't torture coyotes to death in the state of Montana. Montanans are better than that. My bill said nothing about how many coyotes [a person could kill]. It didn't prohibit hunting coyotes off a snowmobile. It simply said at the time, the coyote is exhausted.. She's laying there looking at you in the snowbank. She can't move any further. At that point, you have to kill that animal humanely. You can't run it over repeatedly with a snowmobile. That's all the bill said. The bill died in committee.

I said to the Republican Majority Leader Fred Thomas [of Stevensville], ‘Fred, what kind of people do you represent that would want to make it lawful to run coyotes over with a snowmobile?’

I’d served for 14 years [in the Montana House and Senate] at that point in time [and] I could no longer pray with my Senate colleagues. That was a big deal for me. I'm not especially partisan. They were friends of mine for 14 years. I would stand with them every day and we would begin a session with a prayer and I would stand politely and share the prayer. [But] from that point forward, I could only stand in the anteroom and mind my own business until the prayer was over. Then I stepped back into the chamber and pledged allegiance to the flag. I was sorely disappointed and sad that we couldn't get the [Montana] Legislature to rise above the notion of torturing coyotes. So sad that I could not cotton to their hypocrisy any longer. I certainly wasn't about to pray with them. There is no God that I would worship that would celebrate torturing coyotes.”

If I, as a teenager long ago, had told both my hunter’s safety course instructors and those issuing teenage driver’s permits for snowmobiles, that I intended to “hunt” animals using my snowmachine as a weapon, not only would I have failed the tests but they would have referred me to a therapist. Why should it be any different today?

EDITOR'S NOTE: For further reading, The Story Behind A Coyote Painting Titled ‘Mayday!’

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the  book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and American's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.  Wilkinson has been writing about Greater Yellowstone for 35 years and is a correspondent to publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics as diverse as scientific whistleblowers and Ted Turner, and a book about the harrowing story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
Increase our impact by sharing this story.
Defending Nature

Defend Truth &
Wild Places