A "game" animal is one that's desired by hunters. Usually because it's good eatin'. That's it. There's very little science behind it.
In the U.S., game animals are protected by State and National "Game & Fish" laws (or "Fish & Game" or "Hunting & Fishing" or "Conservation" or "Environment & Natural Resource" or "Wildlife" laws, depending on how the traditions or progressive movements in each State have set or updated the terminology).
Why? In order to regulate the annual harvest so that there will always be good hunting and fishing, with opportunities available to everyone on a fair and democratic basis, and without causing unnecessary suffering (a very quick summary of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation). There's quite a bit of art and science behind how to do all of that; but it's not always as broad-minded as it could be. To the contrary, it tends to focus on providing good hunting and fishing--to the exclusion of other ethical, social, and ecological considerations.
And, conversely, why aren't non-game animals protected in the same way? That's a harder question to answer, and we'll get to it below; but first let's look at the lists of protected animals, and what those protections are.
== Minnesota Lists ==
In the State of Minnesota, the list of "Big Game" animals is fairly short: deer, moose, elk, bear, antelope, and caribou.
"Small Game" includes game birds, gray squirrel, fox squirrel, cottontail rabbit, snowshoe hare, jack rabbit, raccoon, lynx, bobcat, wolf, red fox and gray fox, fisher, pine marten, opossum, badger, cougar, wolverine, muskrat, mink, otter, and beaver.
"Game Birds" include migratory waterfowl, ring-necked pheasant, ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, Canada spruce grouse, prairie chickens, gray partridge, bobwhite quail, wild turkeys, coots, gallinules, sora and Virginia rails, mourning dove, sandhill crane, American woodcock, and commonsnipe.
"Game Fish" include walleye, sauger, yellow perch, channel catfish, flathead catfish; members of the pike family (Esocidae) including muskellunge and northern pike; members of the sunfish family (Centrarchidae) including largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, sunfish, rock bass, white crappie, and black crappie; members of the temperate bass family (Percichthyidae) including white bass and yellow bass; members of the salmon and trout subfamily (Salmoninae) including Atlantic salmon, chinook salmon, coho salmon, pink salmon, kokanee salmon, lake trout, brook trout, brown trout, rainbow (steelhead) trout, and splake; members of the paddlefish family (Polyodontidae); members of the sturgeon family (Acipenseridae) including lake sturgeon, and shovelnose sturgeon; and hybrids of the above.
And a final enumerated category, "Protected Wild Animals" includes all of the above plus rough fish, minnows, leeches, alewives, ciscoes, chubs, lake whitefish, the subfamily Coregoninae (whitefishes and ciscoes), rainbow smelt, frogs, turtles, clams, mussels, wolf, mourning doves, and wild animals that are protected by a restriction in the time or manner of taking, other than a restriction in the use of artificial lights, poison, or motor vehicles.
== Protections for the Minnesota Lists ==
== Federal Lists ==
Never fear for the swans, raptors, and other migratory birds that might appear in Minnesota unexpected, or that might pass through the State on their way North: they're federally protected.
== Protections for the Federal Lists ==
Some of the federal protections preclude State hunting & fishing seasons, while others specify some of the parameters of those seasons.
== Minnesota default category "Unprotected Wild Animals" ==
"Unprotected Wild Animals" in Minnesota include all those that are not on a list. Some of these are weasel, coyote, gopher, porcupine, striped skunk, unprotected birds, and many of the rodents (e.g. woodchucks, prairie dogs, rats, voles, and mice) and moles.
It's important to note that this is a "default" category, meaning that animals are not formally listed in it; rather that animals end up in this category only if nothing further is done to protect them as "game."
Some would have you believe that there's an alternative explanation--one that only those "in the know" (e.g. their buddies and themselves at the sportsmen's club) are qualified to explain--but no, it's just the default: not listed as "game."
== Protections for the default category "Unprotected Wild Animals" ==
The last sentence of the Minnesota definition of "Protected Wild Animals" says something about the meaning of the default category "Unprotected Wild Animals." It lists the basic protections that are provided to all animals: "restrictions in the time or manner of taking, other than in the use of artificial lights, poison, or motor vehicles." In other words, all wild animals are protected from unreasonable exploitation or abuse by certain human technologies that make killing quick, easy, and--for the perverted--"fun."
== Actual definition of the Default Category "Unprotected Wild Animals" ==
== Imaginary Definitions of the Default Category "Unprotected Wild Animals" ==
It was mentioned above that certain parties have their own, partisan interpretations of the significance of the default category "Unprotected Wild Animals." It's important to remember that, although these interpretations might have had something to do with the development of the fish & game laws, they don't have any actual, legal substance. They don't express any consensus opinion, or any official public policy
== Problems with the Imaginary Definitions ==
== Misuse of the Imaginary Definitions to weaken the game & fish regulations ==
In the 2015 MN Game & Fish Bill (SF 1303 / HF 1406), the MN Game & Fish laws were weakened by allowing the use of "radio equipment" in the taking of "Unprotected Wild Animals."
In the 2016 MN House Game & Fish Bill (HF 2844) and in a set of related bills (HF 2819, HF 3160, and SF 3385), a proposal was made to weaken the MN Game & Fish laws by allowing the use of night-vision and thermal-imaging equipment in the taking of "Unprotected Wild Animals" (or in HF 2819, in the taking of "predators" including wolf, coyote, fox, lynx, or bobcat). The argument made by a coyote hunter testifying on behalf of the allowance was that he's going to be hunting at night anyway, but that the equipment would give him a better view of the target than a spotlight, which tends to show only the reflected light in the eyes of the potential target animals. The counter arguments presented by the MN DNR Division of Enforcement were that, considering all of the conditions in which the equipment would be used if it were allowed, it would not give hunters as good a view of the target and what lies beyond it as hunters have in moonlight with a white snow backdrop. The Minnesota allowances for coyote & fox hunting with spotlights limit hunters to a certain date range, hunting method, and firearm type (Jan 1 - Mar 15, calling on foot, using a shotgun). The proposed allowance would not have set the same restrictions for the use of night-vision or thermal-imaging equipment.
== Actual reasons coyotes haven't been classified as "game" animals ==
The State of Minnesota does not have a predator-control program for coyotes. It certainly does not have a coyote-extermination program. Officially speaking, the State of Minnesota neither encourages nor discourages coyote hunting, nor does it support any of the "imaginary definitions" described above, nor their supporting mythologies.
== Discussion ==
The next time someone proposes a weakening of the Game & Fish regulations on the basis of an imaginary definition of the default category "Unprotected," it couldn't hurt to call it out as such, and restate the ethical principle that all animals deserve protection from unreasonable abuse. We need those regulations at full strength.
Snapshot from the MN DNR web page on urban coyotes.