OUTDOORS Hunters vie for elusive coyotes

Because of their keen senses, coyotes are difficult animals to hunt.
FRENCHVILLE, Pa. (AP) -- Thousands of hunters have arrived in this tiny northwestern Pennsylvania town for one of the premier events in all of varmint hunting.
The Mosquito Creek Sportsmen's Club has quickly become the Shangri-La in the search for the coyote and the home to what several hunting organizations say is the largest event of its kind in the country.
Nearly 4,400 hunters have entered this year's event, the 14th annual hunt at Mosquito Creek, which started Friday. But few will be skilled or lucky enough to even see one of the elusive, highly intelligent and instinctive animals.
What draws so many to this town hemmed between state and national forests is both a testing of one's skills and sheer, unremitting boredom. Only one in 100 hunters will have any success. Last year, hunters brought in 42 coyotes, the biggest just over 53 pounds.
"If you can harvest a coyote, you are one very accomplished hunter," said Joe Kosack, a wildlife education specialist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
The coyote has amazing eyesight, a keen sense of smell and a combination of instinct and intellect that can out-fox even the most experienced hunters. The hunt starts in the middle of the night because coyotes tend to travel in darkness.
"These are animals that have all of the best assets of other North American game and more," said Tony Dorschner, president of the Ft. Pierre, S.D.-based Varmint Hunters Association. "If you can call one in, you're good."
And while coyote tracks are common, coyote sightings are extraordinarily rare.
"I hunt almost every day at all hours, and I have seen four or five at most," said Ron Sartori, a hunter and president of the Mosquito Creek club. "I've been here 16 years."
Eastern coyotes are about twice as big as their western counterparts, some growing to 60 pounds or more. There are a number of theories about why they are so big, from crossbreeding with wolves in Canada to an abundance of food.
The hunt
The Mosquito Creek hunt was organized in 1991 when the Kunes farm started losing lambs.
"We had no idea it would grow to this, where now you have people training dogs and getting very serious about it," Sartori said.
With the stakes growing -- this year's top award is $5,000 -- so has the attempt at fraud.
The club brought in veterinarians to determine if a coyote shot months ago had been frozen and then thawed, and metal detectors will be used to find ball bearings that cheaters have slid down the throat of dead coyotes to weigh them down.
But the contest has been a windfall at Mosquito Creek. The clubhouse is covered in brand-new log siding and the interior was recently refinished with knotty pine.
"We pay cash," Sartori said.
Membership is up more than six-fold since the hunt started, to about 6,500.
There are no broad figures that would indicate how many people now hunt coyotes, but there are indications that more people are doing it. Membership at the Varmint Hunters Association has doubled over the last decade to more than 60,000, Dorschner said.
The Izzak Walton Foundation and other outdoors ethics groups have no written stance on predator hunts such as the three-day event at Mosquito Creek, saying only that state regulations should be followed.
Hunting opposition
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has lambasted the practice, saying there is no reason to shoot coyotes other than for sport.
Coyotes are hunted mostly as a nuisance or for the sale of pelts.
"Predator hunting contests usually accomplish the opposite of what is given as the biggest reason for holding them, that being the predatation of deer fawns or livestock," said Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife biologist with PETA. "Coyotes reproduce much faster when you remove part of their population."
In populated areas that abut the dense forests of Pennsylvania, however, there is no love lost when coyotes are killed and businesses around Frenchville get a boost every year in mid-February.
"It's going to be bad," said Shantelle Kay, a bartender at Denny's Beer Barrell Pub, famous for its six-pound hamburger.
But for most, it's a distraction from a long winter, even though hunters Thursday were braving stiff winds and temperature in the low-20s.