Coyote Work
Coyotes, and the various means of harvesting them, has been the main focus of my adult life. I moved west to trap them over 35 years ago, and the huge majority of friends I’ve made over the years have been related to coyotes in one way or another.

On a visit with family in Michigan a few years ago, I had the chance to talk with my dad alone. I asked him if he could remember when in my childhood I decided to become a coyote trapper. He responded so quickly that I know he had thought about it many times before. His response was simple, but to the point: “I can’t remember when you didn’t want to be a coyote trapper. You were always reading or thinking about something that had to do with it”. I thought about that a lot, later, when I was alone on long drives or in the field. At times it’s almost an obsession to be in pursuit of the animal that I, along with so many others, have built a life around.

Likeminded people tend to talk about a common topic when they congregate, and in my circle of friends, coyotes are the most common subject. Sure, bobcats, politics, and kids come up too, but things seem to sway towards coyotes eventually. I’ve been fortunate to get to know, and in some cases, partner with and work around so many great coyote men. I can’t even begin to mention names for fear that I’d leave so many people out in the process. All have made an impact on me in one way or another. Many times, I’ve had something new happen in the field that made me flash back to a previous conversation. I’ve often chuckled to myself when I see a previously related circumstance unfold before my eyes.

All successful coyote men have let their own set of circumstances develop their way of harvesting coyotes. Terrain, populations, laws, and so many other factors have come into play with them throughout their lifetime. Pressure, or the lack of it, is a factor that comes into play often, especially in the West.

I admire many great coyote trappers, because I’m aware of what it takes to successfully harvest them. And, in some cases, they aren’t guys or girls that have been around for 35 years either. Some are relatively new to trapping, but had “the gift”, and ran with it.

Admittedly, I tend to follow the success of people who I’ve had a hand in helping along the way. I get a personal sense of satisfaction when hearing their success stories. I still have weekly visits with a friend who, to save gas money, camped in a haystack with me while trapping back in 1984.

I’ve met many people who had the desire to harvest coyotes, along with other outdoor activities, and they followed up on it. Many good coyote trappers are also good fishermen, bow hunters, and shed horn hunters, just to name a few things. Some are like me, and concentrate on coyotes, which makes the other activities come in a distant second. But, if they’re like me, they always have their eyes open for coyote sign.

I’ve always enjoyed scouting new country and new locations. I’m a firm believer that you can’t over-scout, or know too much about a location or piece of property. Other activities in the field can overlap with scouting and securing permission, and the expenses can be justified when you’re covering more than one base. I’ve mentioned in previous articles about making it a family event or activity, and I still do that as often as possible. A day spent in the field, with a tailgate lunch at noon, has been the source of many great memories.

A buddy of mine from Montana just reminded me of such a day on the Musselshell River, that included us and our three boys. A lot was learned and shared that day, almost 10 years ago. Lion tracks, bobcat poop, and of course, coyote tracks were found that day. The gumbo was wet, and we were in 4-wheel drive for probably 50 miles, but we talked coyotes all day. Great times, and even greater memories, I can assure you. I’m fortunate that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing hundreds of such days afield.

With my position as a county trapper, as well as my connection to the industry through my lure and supply business, I get a lot of inquiries throughout the year, with one common theme: How to get into the business of predator control. Unfortunately, there’s no real standard answer to that question. I remember very well having that topic go through my head a million times as I was getting started years ago. In my case, I had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time so often, I couldn’t begin to tell all of the examples. I got to meet so many people that were, (and are) true coyote men, and they all helped me out in their own way.

I didn’t go to college, but rather dove both feet into the coyote world at an early age, absorbing and experiencing what I could. Some summers I slept in a bedroll 90 to 120 days with no exceptions, including weather. Ticks, rattlesnakes, sunburn, and lightning storms were all taken in stride. I was learning to hunt coyote dens, an art that’s all but forgotten nowadays, and practiced by only a fairly small group of people. Sure, I was “living the dream” doing exactly what I wanted to do with my life, but I still had to produce results. That meant making sacrifices, and literally working every daylight hour when I was in the sheep country I’d been assigned to.

It didn’t take me long to realize that my fall and winter trapping activities were way different than getting things done in the summer months. Lessons were hard learned, and sometimes foolishly brought to light. In other words, I paid my dues. But, fast forward some 30-odd years; I’m getting ready to put the skills I learned those summers to use with the denning season fast approaching. My coworker, and buddy, Dale and I have the same basic background of “old school” methods, and denning is at the top of our list.

As for getting into predator control, I guess to be fair, I have to touch on the availability of such work. Bear in mind that I don’t know all of the examples of positions across the country, but I have a pretty fair knowledge of western coyote work. Most jobs are Wildlife Services (WS) USDA/APHIS positions; in other words, government trappers. South Dakota actually has a state program. I’m not sure, but I do believe all western states do. I know that other programs do additional work also, like beaver, blackbirds in sunflower fields, bears, etc.

From what I’ve been told, you have to have a college degree to be considered for an APHIS job. Some of you younger guys who have dreams of trapping as a profession and think school might not matter, should pay attention while you have the chance -- college will be a must. And I’d look into the requirements long in advance of applying. It’s published on their website. A few phone calls can help, too, and then you can make plans accordingly.

It might surprise a lot of you, but I’ve never been a federal Wildlife Services (WS) trapper -- I’ve always worked for county programs. But many times I worked directly with APHIS trappers. I guess I just prefer the independence of being a private contractor, or employee of a local board. It has just worked out well for me. I have a lot of close friends who are or were WS/APHIS trappers.

For the most part, WS/USDA/APHIS will contract on a yearly basis with each county. In the two states I’m most familiar with, Montana and Wyoming, there are county boards elected or appointed to administer funding and oversee the program, or simply contract with the government. These boards are usually made up of cattle men and sheep men, and maybe a county commissioner or appointed people to round out the board. Some of these boards follow the guidelines set up in the 1880s. They will meet at regular meeting times, run the program, hire (and fire) people, etc.

In some cases, some counties have enough revenue generated by taxes to fund their own programs. Livestock numbers are the main contributing factors, but there are other means of funding at times. Funding, or lack of it, always seems to be a never-ending headache, as livestock numbers fluctuate, markets swing, and most importantly, generation changes occur. And with that comes the cold, hard truth of it all. There are very few counties that fund their own programs. About six come to mind, and if you add in the three or four that have part-time contracts, it pretty much sums it up. In other words, they’re very few and far between, and there’s a long list of people waiting in the wings for a chance at one. Bleak, maybe, but the truth.

Some states and counties have various bounty programs. This is an alternative to what I would call an “organized” predator control type situation, such as a county contract or position. In that case, just about anyone who signs up or shows up with a coyote can benefit from the money allocated to be spent. Fur value, plus a possible bounty, can make coyote trapping lucrative enough to operate during the right months of the year. In rare cases, an individual rancher might pay to have some work done, but again, those cases are very few and far between and most are short-lived. It’s a case-by-case matter.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people think that they can move “out West” and trap coyotes for hire on any given day. I can’t blame them; I had the same uninformed notions in my head long ago too. Some people run scenarios by me that I know can’t work financially. For example, some guys will throw out how many head of livestock that a particular ranch they’ve heard of runs, like 1,200 head of sheep. To uninformed people, that sounds like a lot of dollars to be spent on predator control. When I point out the fact that in most cases, the rancher is only paying $1 per head, minus any administration costs associated within the program, their face usually shows their amazement. You can’t run a program on $1,200 or less. When I ask the simple question, “Why would they pay you more than the $1 a head they’re used to paying?”, they don’t know what to say. Again, there are rare exceptions, but I’ve followed this topic my entire adult life, and I can promise you that those lucrative situations rarely exist.

I’ve thought about it many times, and the world of predator control is the perfect example of “Catch 22” -- you must have experience to get most positions, but you likely won’t get the experience needed by just fur trapping. In my case, when I was starting out, I worked cheap because I knew I needed the experience to get hired in the future. Looking back, I would have paid for it.

I guess my best advice is to spend as much time learning every aspect of coyote work that you can. Read everything you can on the topic, and talk to people who are truly in the know. Experience is still the best teacher, as well as a must; there is no replacement.

After reading back through this article, I can see where this all might sound like I’m trying to discourage someone who has thoughts of getting into predator control. I assure you that’s not my intention at all. It’s just that I’m asked so often about how I personally carved out the lifestyle and positions I’ve held, that I felt compelled to write my side of the story.

The fur industry is absorbing the better-end coyotes from all over the country, and there are opportunities out there to make some additional seasonal income. Fall and winter coyote trapping is a great sport. Take advantage of it while you can. I know a lot of people who will be.