Mike Rodgers stands on his farm on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. Photo by Douglas Soule.

FAYETTE COUNTY — Mud squelched below shifting boots as Chris Payne and three other men scanned the field and the bordering woodland in Fayette County. The overcast sky hid Saturday night’s full moon, but Payne’s thermal scope cut through the darkness. 

He found seven deer and a possum or skunk — glowing apparitions in his rifle scope —  but no coyotes. After around 25 minutes of playing coyote calls with the hope of drawing the predators out, the men returned to their truck and drove on to the next stop.

The coyote noises that emit from a call box.

Payne and his friends are some of the state’s many volunteer coyote hunters, stalking a network of private farms in southern West Virginia to try to thin out the coyote population that preys on local livestock. Payne and his friend Jeremy Lilly, one of the hunters accompanying him that night, started hunting coyotes in the 1990s, when the creatures weren’t very prevalent in the region.

A cow and her calf on Mike Rodger’s farm on Feb. 27, 2021. Photo by Douglas Soule.

Decades later, Payne and Lilly are still at it. And so are the coyotes, but in far larger numbers. 

Over the years, the hunters say they have saved a lot of livestock, killing coyotes that might otherwise go after farm animals and scaring off — for a short while, at least — those that don’t get caught by gunfire. 

“We’ve never charged a dime,” Payne said. 

Right now, these private hunters are one of the only tools West Virginia farmers have to protect cattle from coyotes. Sheep and goat farmers can take advantage of the state’s Coyote Control Program, paying $1 per breeding-age animal in exchange for help with coyote management, which ranges from preventing predator access to the property to killing infiltrating coyotes.

But cattle are excluded from the program, though the coyotes don’t make similar distinctions. The National Agricultural Statistics Service found that in 2015 — the most recent year data was available — predators killed 320 West Virginia calves and 120 adult cattle. 

Fayette County cattle farmer Mike Rodgers lost a calf two weeks ago. 

“The coyotes found the calf,” Rodgers said. “All we found of the calf was the legs.” 

Under a bill making its way through the West Virginia Legislature, Rodgers would be able to opt into the state’s Coyote Control Program at the same rate as sheep and goat farmers, giving him one additional tool to protect his animals. 

‘Another tool in the toolbox’

Rodgers has lived on his 300-acre Fayette County farm for most of his 47 years. The cattle on the farm — two bulls, 28 cows, 13 calves and counting — are his family’s main source of income. They sell the 25 to 30 calves born on the farm each year. 

Rodgers’ great-great grandfather bought the property, and cattle have been on the land since then. Coyotes killing cattle was unheard of more than two decades ago, Rodgers said. But then, the farm began routinely losing 10% to 15% of its calves every year. In 2018, coyotes even killed four adult cows.  

Enlisting the volunteer coyote hunters has helped keep his cattle safe, Rodgers said. But even with their help, a two-year streak of no coyote kills ended with the calf killed two weeks ago.

“In the last decade, [the coyote population] has gotten out of hand,” said Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 61. “Hopefully this will be another tool in the toolbox for the agricultural community to keep the coyote population at bay.”

The Coyote Control Program, more formally known as the West Virginia Integrated Predation Management Program, is a collaboration between the federal and state Departments of Agriculture. 

While some scientists argue killing coyotes and other predators can ultimately damage the ecosystem, the government has been subsidizing the program to protect livestock in West Virginia since the mid-1990s.

John Forbes, the USDA’s Wildlife Services state director, said the program protected $15.6 million in West Virginia livestock in fiscal year 2019, offering farmers both nonlethal and lethal  tools. More than 400 coyotes were killed that year through the program, according to its fiscal year 2019 report.

“We don’t try to manage the population of coyotes,” Forbes said. “We try to manage the damage itself.”

According to the 2019 report, 93 cattle producers participated in the program. A total of 122 livestock producers on 177 properties participated.

A cow and her calf on Mike Rodger’s farm on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. Photo by Douglas Soule.

But because the current law doesn’t include cattle, these farmers are charged for the real cost of the services. Forbes said participating cattle farmers have to pay $81, plus 50 cents per head for each breeding-age cow. Sheep and goat farmers are required to pay only $1 per head as a kind of insurance in case help is needed. 

Sypolt has been trying to add cattle farmers to the Coyote Control Program for years; this legislation would give these farmers the option of paying the same price as sheep and goat farmers. He was also the lead sponsor on a similar bill back in 2018, when it passed the House and Senate only to be vetoed by Gov. Jim Justice. Sypolt said he introduced the legislation after beef producers explained the problems they were having with coyotes. 

In the veto, Justice cited concern that the law would be a first step to making the fee for cow owners mandatory. In 2019 and 2020, the bill passed through the Senate again, only to get stuck in the House Finance Committee.

Now, the bill has once again passed the Senate, and is sitting in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. It has also been referred to the House Finance Committee. 

Sypolt said, after talking to House members and the governor’s staff, he’s optimistic that it will become law. The governor’s office did not respond to a media request.

The snare 

Besides extending the Coyote Control Program to cattle farmers, the bill also requires these program participants to notify their neighbors and, if they lease the property, the land owners. This, says Mary Catherine Tuckwiller, is a step in the right direction. 

Tuckwiller and her husband Thomas live on a cattle farm in Lewisburg that’s been in Thomas’ family since 1851. A hundred or so cattle rove the property at any given time. Having had cattle injured and killed by coyotes, the Tuckwillers also support the program’s extension to farmers like them. 

But they also know what can happen when a neighboring property owner uses lethal coyote control measures.

Mary Catherine, Thomas Tuckwiller and their dog Caroline on their farm on Feb. 27, 2021. Photo by Douglas Soule.

In the spring of 2017, the Tuckwillers found their 2-year-old Australian Cattle Dog dead, with a snare around his neck. Cabell was both a favorite pet and valuable herding help. The snare had been put on their property without their knowledge, and was meant to catch coyotes. It was tagged: “USDA Wildlife Serv.” 

The neighboring property owner grazes sheep, and got the snare through the Coyote Control Program. It was put on the Tuckwillers’ property by mistake, but even if the trap had been on the neighbor’s land, the Tuckwillers weren’t notified lethal traps were placed nearby. 

Since their dog was killed, Mary Catherine has become a vocal advocate for requiring a landowner to provide written notices to neighbors when they participate in the program. She has even testified during a Senate committee meeting. 

“If you need to tell your adjacent property owner, then if there is any confusion and the mitigation folks who are laying the traps and snares mistakenly put it on your property and not the property they’re trying to mitigate, you at least know and can check the fence lines,” she said in an interview. 

The snare that killed the Tuckwillers’ dog, Cabell. Photo by Douglas Soule.

Forbes said Wildlife Services currently only notifies neighboring properties if M-44 cyanide traps are used. If Senate Bill 61 becomes law, it would require cattle farmers provide written notice to their neighbors within 30 days of the decision to participate in the Coyote Control Program, and before the farmer places any control method on the land. 

The hunt

But regardless of whether the bill becomes law, the volunteer coyote hunters plan to continue.

At the first farm they visited last Saturday night, standing on a mist-draped field behind tripod-held rifles, the call box elicited no sightings. But they did hear multiple yipped responses, hinting at a promising night. 

At the third stop, after the truck pulled up a driveway and the property owner chatted with Payne through the driver side window, one of the hunters in the truck spotted two animals on the field below. A barked warning confirmed the presence of coyotes. They rushed out of the truck, and one hunter aimed and fired. A miss. 

That was the extent of the team’s coyote encounters when a Mountain State Spotlight reporter parted ways with the team at 2 a.m. The team had traversed the weaving backroads of Fayette County, staying for around 20 to 25 minutes at each stop, watching and waiting. 

That wasn’t enough for Payne’s team to win the weekend’s coyote-hunting tournament, held by Payne’s Facebook group, “Southern WV Coyote Hunters.” Seven coyotes were killed that weekend alone by members.

Early Sunday morning, after another coyote-free farm visit, the team stood in a circle on the road, trying to figure out the next step. A faint but bitterly cold drizzle fell from the cloudy night sky. The forecast said it would get a whole lot worse.  They had planned to go to Mike Rodgers’ farm, where they’d gotten close to 15 coyotes annually for the last few years, but rabbit hunters had been there recently, and the trail camera on Rodgers’ property didn’t pick up any coyote activity. They eventually opted to try their luck elsewhere. 

But the coyotes will be back soon. So will Payne. And, maybe, Wildlife Services will be there as well.

Douglas Soule is a Report for America corps member who covers business and economic development. A Bridgeport native, he worked as an intern at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He has served as editor-in-chief...