OAKVILLE — It’s dead silent as Steven Johnson and I sit in a hunting blind surveying a rolling livestock pasture on a chilly December night.
Johnson, 32, an Oakville resident, holds his Winchester 7mm bolt-action rifle with one hand and a remote control in the other. He pushes a button and an electronic game call he placed 80 yards away begins shrieking the unmistakable sound of a pack of coyotes howling. A Siamese cat that has decided to join our hunt, a pet of the owner of the property we’re using, snaps its head in the direction of the piercing call and stares intently. It then looks over at me as if to say, ‘Did you hear that!?’ This cat knows that sound all too well.
Johnson and I are here to hunt predators, more specifically, coyotes. The property owner, who Johnson found in the Oakville community Facebook group after requesting land to hunt coyotes on, enthusiastically invites us over to her house.
Coyotes have been more than a nuisance on her farm, getting bold enough to snatch lambs in front of her in broad daylight. They’ve become so crafty they’ve learned which fields her two livestock-guardian dogs are able to access, focusing their efforts on fields the dogs can’t get to at any given time. The two dogs, locked in a barn to keep safe while Johnson and I hunt, go berserk with barking when the electronic coyote call sounds off.
Coyotes are intelligent, cautious and adaptable animals that resemble small German shepherds. Adults weigh 20 to 35 pounds, with males being slightly larger than females. An adult male coyote is about 25 inches tall at the shoulder.
Before pioneers came to North America, coyotes lived primarily in sagebrush lands, the mountains and the open prairies of the west. They have since expanded their range to almost every habitat type, from desert to densely-forested areas to urban streets. Despite ever-increasing human encroachment, the species maintains its numbers and is even increasing in some areas.
Coyotes eat a wide range of prey, including deer, birds, rabbits, moles and many other species. They often consume even the head, feet and hide, leaving just a scattering of fur. They also like livestock.
In Oakville, where the farms stretch as far as the eye can see and the livestock outnumber the people, its prime feeding grounds for coyotes. That’s why Johnson and I are out here on a Wednesday night, just before dusk, waiting and watching for any signs of movement on the hillside facing our blind.
Johnson grew up on Ward Creek near Menlo and began hunting at 11 years old in the Willapa Hills. He’s still holding the same pre-1964 7mm Shooting Times Westerner rifle that he received as a gift for his 11th birthday. He bagged a spike buck near his house that year while hunting with his grandpa and dad. He got his first elk the same year near South Bend.
“I was hooked ever since then,” Johnson said. “That was awesome. I was one of the first kids in my class to get a buck. I was the cool kid for a couple weeks.”
He hunted every year until he was 18 when, while dealing with alcoholism, he stole beer from a tavern and received a felony. He was forced to relinquish his guns to family members and was prevented from hunting with firearms.
“It was 100 percent because of drinking and partying as kids,” Johnson said. “I was an alcoholic for years. I’d get home and just want to drink.”
He didn’t hunt for the next five years while he struggled to regain his life back from alcohol, working and living as a functional alcoholic. Johnson eventually got his life back on track and found a good-paying job as a millwright in Aberdeen. Working the night shift there has helped him steer clear of social drinking as his friends all work during the day while he’s at home sleeping.
“I totally changed my outlook on social drinking,” Johnson said. “It’s worked out good for me. It’s way, way better.”
He then bought the house he lives in now in Oakville. To celebrate his sobriety and regaining his firearm rights, he purchased $30,000 worth of hunting gear, the best of the best, which included multiple rifles, shotguns, handguns, a $1,000 thermal imaging monocular and a $500 state-of-the-art electronic game call which belts out hundreds of wild game calls, including crow, coyote and wounded rabbit.
“I felt like I had lost something,” Johnson said. “So I made up for it in one bang.”
Hunting has helped him keep his mind off drinking and partying. It’s the one time where he can clear his mind, find some adventure and do what he loves to do, which is spending time outdoors.
“The biggest thing is just getting out there, peace of mind, being out in the woods, going to places you’ve never been in the middle of nowhere,” Johnson said. “I like exploring.”
Johnson’s first time hunting coyotes was once when his grandfather took him as a kid. He got back into it a little over a year ago. He hasn’t found much success yet, it’s been more of a learning year, though he has seen at least one coyote on nearly every trip he’s been on. He hears them howling almost every night from his house.
It’s estimated at least 50,000 coyotes live in the state, according to an article by the Yakima Herald.
There is no bag limit on hunting coyotes in Washington and they can be hunted year-round as they are not classified as game animals. A state license is required to hunt or trap them. No license is needed if a property owner or tenant of a property can show a coyote is damaging their crops or threatening domestic animals.
And they can wreak havoc on small livestock, mostly lambs, young calves and poultry. In a 2015 USDA report on sheep losses, ranchers reported how many of their animals died in 2014 and how they died. Twenty-eight percent of adult sheep losses and 36 percent of lamb losses were attributed to predators. Of those animals, ranchers stated that 33,510 adult sheep (more than half of total predation losses) and 84,519 lambs (nearly two-thirds of all predation losses) were killed by coyotes.
“They’re mostly a concern with small livestock,” WDFW Wildlife Biologist Eric Holman said. “Those things are right in the size range of what a coyote would naturally be feeding on. Those animals on a small farm are definitely vulnerable to being taken by coyotes.”
In 2010, in Washington state, coyote predation on cattle totaled 51 percent of all livestock attacks, according to a study done by the USDA. Cattle and sheep predation accounted for a $1.7 million loss to Washington’s livestock industry that year.
In response, the federal government kills thousands of coyotes every year to keep them from preying on livestock and big game. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture killed more than 68,000 coyotes in the U.S.
Coyotes attacks on humans are few and far in between. The only documented coyote attack on a human in Washington state occurred in 2006, when two were euthanized in Bellevue after two young children were bitten.
“It’s a very, very rare situation where they ever attack a person,” Holman said. “Those are really all related to cases where they were being fed by people.”
On the flip side, predators play key roles in the ecosystem. Coyotes are considered a keystone species, meaning their presence or absence has a large impact on the surrounding biological community. Results from a study by Utah State University resulted in sage grouse benefiting from the present of coyotes because they reduced the number of nest predators.
And killing coyotes may even make livestock predation worse, according to an article by conservation biologist Megan Draheim. When pack animals such as coyotes are killed, the social structure of their packs break down. It makes female coyotes, which average six pups per litter, more likely to breed. Pups will reach full growth between 9-12 months, reach sexual maturity at 12 months and will be ready to reproduce continuing the cycle. They live about 10 years in the wild.
But deer and elk are so poorly managed in Washington, Johnson said, mostly from over-hunting from both humans and wild predators. So hunting coyotes is just a small way to help even the score for wild game.
“There’s nothing that hunts the predators,” Johnson said. “And they’re taking over. That’s why there’s so many more sightings and people seeing them on trails.”
A 2010 study showed that cougars killed on average .8 ungulates (mainly whitetail deer) a week. Cougars are even more difficult to hunt than coyotes. In Johnson’s 32 years, he’s seen two cougars in the wild out of the estimated 2,000 adult cougars living in the state at any given time.
“You see how much of a problem coyotes are when you post on Facebook and you have five people offering, ‘Come out here and you can hunt on my property!’ That doesn’t happen unless that’s a problem,” Johnson said.
Coyotes don’t have many weaknesses, but they do have dichromatic vision, a form of color blindness, meaning they can only see blue and yellow colors. Johnson uses that in his strategy for coyote hunting.
While his electronic game call blares various animal noises, he scans the hillside with a thermal imaging monocular, basically night-vision. He looks for a heat spot that indicates an animal has approached. Once he identifies a coyote, he turns on his predator light, a $500 LED hunting light mounted to his scope that shoots a beam of red light hundreds of yards. Coyotes can’t see it but he can see them perfectly. Then the hunt is on.
We spend a couple hours hunched in the blind on camping chairs, speaking in hushed whispers while scoping the pasture with night vision, just waiting for that hot spot to show and for the fireworks to begin. Nothing shows itself. Johnson reckons it might be because the blind we set up is out of place and could have spooked any wild animal. It could also be our scent. It could be a number of small things the average person doesn’t think about but are always in the back of hunter’s heads.
For now, we’ll head back to the truck and try again another night. The property owner gives Johnson permission to leave his blind up for another excursion in the coming weeks. We stake it down like a tent and retrieve the game call. As we cross the pasture, Johnson invites me to return with him on another hunting trip after Christmas. Maybe it’s the call of the wild, I don’t know, but I agree. The thrill of the hunt has taken its hold.