A once obscure coyote hunting contest in northernmost California has become anything but, as environmental groups lobby the state to call it off to protect a lone, roaming wolf.
The hunt is sponsored by a hunt club and outfitter supply store in Adin in Modoc County, with the team that kills the most coyotes between Feb. 8 and 10 winning a silver belt buckle.
Organizers say they're trying to rid the Big Valley cattle ranching community of coyotes, a predator that can harm livestock. The state's lone gray wolf currently is about 100 miles from the hunt, state wildlife officials say.
Opponents argue that widespread slaughter of coyotes disrupts the balance of nature and leads to an increase in the number of ground squirrels and other vermin.
But the main argument in a letter sent by 20 organizations to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is about protecting the wolf known as OR7, which became the first in the state in nearly a century when it wandered across Oregon and into California a year ago. They fear others could be in the area.
The gray wolf is a federally protected species in California, and wildlife authorities are in the process of determining whether state protections should be offered as well.
Opponents of the coyote hunt fear that participants won't be able to readily tell the difference between a coyote and a much larger wolf, even though OR7 is wearing a tracking collar.
"We contend that the state does have the authority to intervene here and has the obligation to do so with regard to the threat to OR7 and other potential un-collared wolves in the area," said Camilla Fox of Project Coyote and the Animal Welfare Institute.
Animal welfare groups also plan to ask the Fish and Game Commission to stop the hunt during its meeting in Sacramento on Tuesday, or at least come up with a better solution to predator management.
"We are worried about the safety of the wolf and we're concerned about the persecution of these animals (coyotes) in the name of sport and recreation," said Jennifer Fearing of the Humane Society of the United States.
The seventh annual hunt is organized by the Pit River Rod and Gun Club, and the sponsor is Adin Supply Co., which did not return phone calls seeking comment. The gun club's website does not have contact information.
Adin Supply owner Steve Gagnon recently told KQED that killing coyotes is a way of life in the rural enclave.
"What we have here is part of our heritage," he said. "It's been going on for years and years."
Fish and Wildlife officials say the hunt is legal and there's nothing they can do to stop it. They were more concerned last year when OR7 was in the same county as the hunt and sent wardens to educate hunters.