SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - A statewide coyote-hunting contest planned for later this month has caused an uproar in New Mexico, pitting environmentalists against ranchers, as heated words flooded social media networks and thousands signed a petition opposing the hunt as cruel. . The furor prompted the Albuquerque gun store owner who originally sponsored the contest to cancel, but a second gun dealer in the southern New Mexico town of Los Lunas, Gunhawk Firearms, stepped in to take over the event on the weekend of November 17-18.
"Coyotes are a direct threat to the cattle industry," Gunhawk owner Mark Chavez said on Friday, accusing environmentalists of trying to stir up sentiment against the contest to further their "hidden agenda."
"They're trying to get rid of the hunting industry and the gun industry," he told Reuters.
According to a New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association, wild predators killed 5,500 sheep and 3,700 lambs in the state in 2009 alone.
Caren Cowen, executive director of the association, said coyotes pose a greater threat to sheep than larger livestock, such as full-grown cows, though calves also are vulnerable.
"A calf today is worth $1,000," she said. "In today's market, how many times can you stand to have $1,000 taken from your wallet?"
But Wendy Keefover, director of carnivore protection for the conservation group WildEarth Guardians, said the threat to livestock from coyotes is overblown by the ranching industry.
Citing U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, she said predators such as coyotes and feral dogs accounted for less than a quarter-percent of all cattle losses nationwide in 2010, the most recent year for which data was available.
The overwhelming majority of livestock deaths are due to disease, bad weather and birthing difficulties, she said.
Although the coyote's natural range has expanded three-fold in recent years, Keefover called the premise of a hunting contest a "myth," insisting that killing coyotes would fail to reduce their population in the long run.
"Coyotes make up for their losses by changing behaviors, such as more females breeding and with larger litters or increasing migration," she said.
In addition, coyotes play an important role as natural predators in a healthy ecosystem, helping to maintain rabbit and other rodent populations at balanced levels.
Neither side in the debate had any figures on the current size of the coyote population in New Mexico.
Many other states have held similar annual contests, said Mary Ray, wildlife chair for the Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club. But heightened publicity in New Mexico, amplified by Facebook and other social media, has generated a greater level of attention than usual, she said.
Nearly 15,000 people responded to an online petition opposing the event as of Friday. Hundreds more wrote on Gunhawk's Facebook page in support, Chavez said.
Chavez said 25 two-person hunting teams have signed up for the contest so far, and he expects about 100 teams will be registered by the start date. The team that bags the most coyotes will win an automatic rifle, he said.
"We've hunted for many years. It's my heritage and my right to hunt and to teach my kids to hunt," Chavez said.
Contestants must register with the Los Lunas gun shop and attend an orientation before the contest, but coyote hunting in general is unregulated in New Mexico and requires no license.
Keefover said a separate coyote-hunting contest in Montana was canceled on Friday after an article about the event was featured in the Sacramento Bee newspaper. Colorado banned contest hunting in 1997, the only state to do so, she said.
"Contest hunting is not ethical hunting. The point of hunting is not to pile up a bunch of bodies," Keefover said.
Reporting by Zelie Pollon; Editing by Steve Gorman and Jackie Frank