By TRACIE CONE
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- The state game commission on Wednesday declined to intervene in a controversial coyote hunting contest, although members did ask for a legal opinion on whether the board has authority to regulate contests in the future.
Hunters are set to fan across Modoc County on Saturday and Sunday to see who can kill the most coyotes in a contest sponsored by a gun club. The winner will get a silver belt buckle.
Animal welfare advocates argued before the Fish and Game Commission that the hunt is inhumane, and wanton slaughter is contrary to scientific wildlife management practices that show the predators play an important vermin-control role in the ecosystem.
"It's ethically indefensible and suggests wildlife has no value other than targets in an outdoor shooting gallery," said Camilla Fox, executive director of Project Coyote.
Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham said it's legal in California for hunters to kill wildlife that causes crop or livestock damage.
The board took no action because the hunt was not on the agenda. However, newly elected commission President Michael Sutton asked staff to clarify the board's authority to regulate the contests.
Fox said after the meeting that it's an open question whether coyotes to be targeted along the California border with Oregon have caused damage.
"It's a question the department should be looking at. How often is damage demonstrated?" Fox said.
A letter previously sent to the agency said 20 organizations want to protect a 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 other wolves could be in the area.
Opponents of the coyote hunt fear that participants won't be able to readily tell the difference between a coyote and a wolf.
OR7 is larger than a coyote, but because it mingles with coyotes, animal advocates wrote letters and collected petition signatures asking the state to call off the coyote hunt.
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.
Bonham said wildlife officials will be at the hunt to educate participants about the physical differences between a wolf and a coyote.
The ability to hunt predators is important to ranchers, said Margo Parks of the California Cattlemen's Association. She said coyotes are responsible for $4 million in damages annually.
"OR7 is a poorly disguised excuse to further chip away at hunting rights," she said.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.