FARMINGTON - The Farmington chapter of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife last weekend hosted a coyote-calling contest that attracted 22 hunters and protest from a state wildlife protection group.

The contest matched 11 teams of two hunters each. The teams hunted during the day Saturday and Sunday, and the team that killed the most coyotes won.

A slow hunt because of the wind, this year's hunters netted 16 coyotes, said Frances Espinoza, a member of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.

Coyote-calling is a talent that takes years to hone, said Darwin Gunnick, a committee member for the local Sportsmen group. The tricks and techniques require practice to master.

Coyotes "are very smart animals. (Calling) is not something you can run out and do. You have to prepare and train yourself," Gunnick said. "Early in the morning is best, at first light. Use a jackrabbit or coyote call or a fawn in distress."

The Farmington Sportsmen group has hosted an annual coyote-calling contest for more than seven years, making it the longest advertised coyote-calling competition in the state.

There are few official coyote-calling competitions throughout New Mexico each year, said Phil Carter, the wildlife campaign manager for Animal Protection of New Mexico, which is against the contests.

In eastern New Mexico, Grady held coyote-calling competitions in recent years, and there was an organized competition in Catron County in 2000, he said.

"While these events aren't illegal, they are astonishingly egregious for their bloodthirstiness," he said. "Especially for an organization that is led by an appointed New Mexico game commissioner."

Robert Espinoza is a game commissioner from Farmington and a former executive director of the Sportsmen of Fish and Wildlife.

Espinoza said he retired as executive director when he was appointed to the game commission last year.

"As a proponent of repulsive killing contests, (Espinoza) displays a callous disregard for our state's wildlife and for life itself," Carter said.

Espinoza said hunting predators is a fast-growing hobby across the country.

"The coyote is a predator and like any predator or game animal, hunting is a method of management," Espinoza said. "You have fishing contests. Is that cruel? It is a method of management and recreation just like any other hunting activity."

Coyote hunting also is unregulated and will not be an issue the state game commission votes on, he said.

"The game commission has no authority over a coyote," he said.

Proponents of widespread coyote hunting say the canines damage deer herds and kill livestock, especially sheep, cattle and deer in the spring when there are newborns. Coyotes also have killed local pets.

"It's needed. We need to control coyotes if we want to keep the other animals," Gunnick said. "And hunters are the only ones that will do it."

Coyote problems are not isolated to ranches or families in rural, unincorporated parts of the county.

John Hansen, a wildlife biologist for the Bureau of Land Management's Farmington Field Office, said coyotes live all over San Juan County, including in Farmington city limits by the rivers or in open fields of sagebrush and pinon and juniper trees.

They have a diet of small animals, like rabbits and mice, or as large as sheep, baby deer and cattle. They also eat a large number of insects and berries, Hansen said.

There also are cases in Farmington and San Juan County where coyotes have killed pets, he said.

While the BLM focuses on habitat preservation to help sustain local wildlife, there is evidence that shows killing coyotes can prove beneficial to deer and livestock populations, Hansen said.

"Coyotes are in Farmington, they're at the river bottoms and they kill a lot of cats and small dogs," Gunnick said. "A lot of people have problems with them."