In January and February, some of the largest wildlife killing contests in the nation occurred in Pennsylvania, with at least 27 of these “predator hunts” this winter alone. Annually, tens of thousands of hunters take to Pennsylvania forests to kill and trap coyotes — the keystone predator of the Keystone State. Killing-contest prize money attracts more contest participants than any other furbearer event in the state. Hundreds of coyotes can be killed in each of these club-sponsored hunts. What the numbers don’t reveal is the grave damage done to the Pennsylvania wilds when a keystone predator like the coyote is slaughtered on such a massive scale.

Coyotes are vital for the control of rodent and pest populations, which are common vectors for diseases. They also help prevent “mesopredator release,” a phenomenon that occurs in the absence of large predators. Without coyotes, mesopredator populations of feral cats, raccoons, and skunks can expand, leading to overexploitation of certain ecological niches. This phenomenon is seen in the activity of feral cats, which, left unchecked, decimate native songbird populations. Cohabitating with coyotes and other alpha or top predators, rather than exterminating them, introduces balance into an ecosystem through top-down pressure, like a keystone in an archway.

Many Pennsylvania woodsmen have erroneously taken up the notion that “automobile insurers or the Pennsylvania Game Commission introduced coyotes to the state to control deer populations,” as the Journal of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science reported in 2011. The true story is less conspiracy, more unsung hero: The coyote arrived naturally in Pennsylvania in the 1930s as some of the last native apex predators were exterminated and an exploding deer population threatened to collapse the food web. Deer numbers had swollen to 500% of their precolonial numbers, and with an impending overgrazing catastrophe, coyotes, along with human hunters, helped stabilize the reeling forests.

According to the Pennsylvania Academy of Science, those who believed the PGC-insurance conspiracy theory were also more likely to believe that lethal control of coyotes is an effective management strategy — something wildlife biologists have widely rejected. Lethal controls, such as wildlife killing contests, encourage younger individuals to breed sooner and may result in larger litters and greater pup survival. Misinformation about the coyote’s origins and ecology continues to influence public sentiment and wildlife management strategies and has the potential to damage Pennsylvania’s natural systems on the scale of decades, rather than years, to come.

It is our responsibility, shepherded by the PGC, to secure the wild heritage of Pennsylvania by ensuring that we are accurately informed about the wildlife that shares our forests, and the policies that allow us to coexist. As the spring stars chase Orion into the early west, listen for the songs of the coyote on the horizon, crying of wilderness and freedom, and be thankful that, for now, we can still hear the music.

To help restore balance to our natural lands, and to keep the coyotes singing, visit projectcoyote.org/endkillingcontests.

Joe Wilbur is a wildlife technician who works with, studies, and writes about ecological issues along the East Coast and abroad. Camilla Fox is the founder and executive director of Project Coyote, a national nonprofit that promotes compassionate conservation and coexistence between people and wildlife through education, science, and advocacy.