ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The terms of the competition are simple: Hunters in New Mexico have two days this weekend to shoot and kill as many coyotes as they can, and the winners get their choice of a free shotgun or a pair of semi-automatic rifles.
But the planned two-day coyote hunting contest has sparked an online petition that has generated tens of thousands of signatures worldwide. The FBI is investigating a death threat to the gun shop owner who is sponsoring the hunt. And one protester has even vowed to dress like a coyote to trick hunters into accidentally killing a human.
But none of these episodes will likely stop the owner of Gunhawk Firearms from holding the scheduled two-day coyote hunting race this weekend, despite the international attention the idea has garnered.
"I'm not going to back down," said Mark Chavez, 50, who has faced two weeks of angry phone calls and protests — and even a threat to his life. "This is my right to hunt and we're not breaking any laws."
Under the rules of the contest, the winning team will get its choice of a Browning Maxus 12-gauge shotgun or two AR-15 semi-automatic rifles from the Los Lunas shop, and a hired taxidermist will salvage any pelts and hides from the dead coyotes for clothing.
"I'll even give the furs to the homeless if they need it," Chavez said.
The competition — which opponents are calling a "coyote killing contest" — has sparked thousands of angry emails, social media postings and a petition signed by activists from as far as Europe who have demanded that the hunt be called off. Last week, a small group of protesters held a rally outside of Gunhawk Firearms and waved signs denouncing the event as cruel and "bloodthirsty."
People are upset over the idea of making a contest out of killing an animal that usually lives peacefully alongside residents, said Susan Weiss, 74, who leads the Coexist with Coyotes group in Corrales, N.M.
"There's a tremendous amount of arrogance in conducting this hunt," Weiss said. "(Chavez) is damaging the reputation of ranchers. He is damaging the reputation of legitimate hunters."
But some New Mexico ranchers have complained about the large population of coyotes, estimated to be around 300,000 in the state. Coyotes are blamed for thousands of death to calves annually, and aren't protected under federal or state laws, ranchers say.
"People are trying to portray these animals as something they're not. Coyotes are predators. They survive in the wild by killing what they can, including livestock and pets," said Rex Wilson, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association. "The people protesting this contest have obviously never seen a calf chewed up by a coyote, or watched a mama sheep try to revive a dead lamb."
The controversy began last month when the Albuquerque-based Calibers Shooters Sports Center announced plans for a similar contest. Calibers canceled the event after pressure from Weiss and other activists and attention from national media outlets.
That's when Chavez, a former rancher and construction worker, took up the cause and decided to hold his own coyote hunt, scheduled to begin on private land on Saturday.
"I felt that Calibers backed down to the pressure," he said. "We can't let that happen, especially since it's our right to hunt."
Chavez said he was inundated with complaints and support just as soon as news broke that Gunhawk would organize the hunt. A letter by one resident warned Chavez that he would be dressing in a "coyote outfit" during the contest and said participants would feel guilty once they discovered they had killed a human.
"I hope also there will be a doctor on hand to check this guy out," Chavez said. "Who says that kind of stuff?"
Someone else called and made a death threat, Chavez said. The call was reported to the FBI.
Participants in a coyote hunting contest won't be allowed to shoot coyotes on federal or state land.
New Mexico Land Commissioner Ray Powell told Chavez in a letter Thursday that a permit or lease is needed for commercial use of the state lands and none has been issued. Anyone participating in the contest on state land will be considered a trespasser, Powell said.
In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has also sent Chavez a letter to say that hunting won't be allowed on its land.
Still, Chavez said 60 teams have signed up for a two-day contest that will be conducted on private land of willing ranchers. He said in addition to the angry phone calls and emails, he's getting support for hunters and ranchers who have been battling aggressive coyotes on their lands.
"When I see the happy faces on the people who come in here, that's all the matters to me," he said.
Follow Russell Contreras at http://twitter.com/russcontreras