Its a rule the conscientious hunter knows and adheres to every time out: Dont shoot unless youre sure.

Sure beyond the dimmest shadow of a doubt that the animal youre aiming at is what you think it is. Sure that its legal to take this species in this place at this time. Sure that the situation allows for a humane kill.

Coyotes, though, can test even a responsible hunters resolve.

You dont need a tag to hunt these desert wolves. The season is open year-round, and the legal hunting area encompasses almost all of Oregon (exceptions include Indian reservations, Crater Lake National Park and certain wildlife refuges).

But that rule about being sure still applies, whether your quarry is a lowly coyote or a lordly six-point bull elk.

And hunters who forget, who let their standards slip even slightly when theyre aiming at a maligned predator rather than a venerated big game animal, are subjecting themselves to the potential for some pretty serious problems.

What if the coyote you thought you shot was actually an endangered gray wolf that migrated into Oregon from Idaho?

This case of mistaken identity could cost you $100,000 and a year in jail.

Or what if the animal you barely glimpsed at dusk on the edge of the dark timber was someones dog, out rounding up cattle and not marking its next meal as you assumed?

Were not suggesting people stop hunting coyotes. Quite the opposite, in fact were pleased that the Baker County Board of Commissioners decided this week to boost the countys predator control budget by $4,000.

Populations of coyotes and other predators primarily cougars are increasing in Baker County, and they pose a threat not only to domestic livestock but also to the deer, elk, antelope and bighorn sheep herds that attract hunters to the region.

We would be aghast to see Wallowa Countys experience replicated here. Our neighbor to the northeast has seen predators decimate its elk herds over the past several years, forcing the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to reduce hunting tags by more than 6,000.

But this predator scourge doesnt free hunters to ignore the be sure rule.

Unfortunately, maintaining the highest of hunting ethics sometimes means you cant pull the trigger. There are noteworthy differences between a coyote and a wolf wolves weigh three or four times as much, for example but these may not be obvious in low light, or in a blizzard, or in thick timber.

But we think most hunters would agree that a six-figure fine and a jail term far outweigh any desire for one more coyote pelt or one less predator in the forest or on the range.