A weekend coyote-hunting tournament in southwestern Minnesota drew sharp opposition from animal welfare activists, reprising a common conflict over whether such events help check the continuing spread of the flourishing predator or legitimize unsportsmanlike conduct and unnecessary cruelty.

Publicity about the second annual “Save the Birds” tournament in Marshall, which began Friday and was to run through Saturday, sparked an online petition calling for it to be banned and a heated dialogue between supporters and opposers in the town’s local newspaper.

As in many places across the country, coyotes are not protected in Minnesota; with some restrictions, they can be hunted without a license. The tournaments, which are legal, are popular with hunters vying for prizes and enjoying the accompanying social occasions.

But many anti-cruelty groups adamantly oppose them. They include the Minnesota-based nonprofit Howling for Wolves, which along with more than 169,000 signers of a Change.org petition posted by Scott Slocum of White Bear Lake, campaigned for the contest’s suspension, deeming it dangerous to wildlife and criticizing its competitive nature.

The protesters sent a letter to Gov. Mark Dayton, according to Howling for Wolves founder Maureen Hackett. A spokesperson for Dayton said he’s in Washington, D.C., until Monday and sent a response from Linden Zakula, Dayton’s deputy chief of staff.

“State law provides no protection for coyotes in Minnesota; therefore, no license or permit is needed to take them, and no DNR approval is required,” Zakula said. “Our office has informed Howling for Wolves that the governor has no legal authority to prevent a coyote hunt from taking place.”

Despite their legality, the hunts are still offensive, protesters say.

“When you try to dial back some of these egregious animal-killing contests, the attitude from the other side is either you’re a Bambi lover or you’re just a wimp,” Hackett said.

She said that because one side in the debate is armed, there is “an intimidation factor,” and “intolerance kind of oozes in conjunction with killing.”

The event in Marshall advertised more than $1,500 in prizes — the top bounty is $500 — for two-person teams and required adherence to state Department of Natural Resources rules, according to its website.

Coordinator Ty Brouwer did not respond to a request for comment Saturday; his wife, Tara, said he was out of town. In a Feb. 11 Marshall Independent story, he was quoted as saying that some protesters “don’t like hunting at all.”

The Independent also published an opinion piece by its editor, Per Peterson, headlined “Coyote hunt ugly? Not so fast.”

At least 80 similar contests took place in 23 states during the past year, according to the Coyote Contest website, which curates listings. A contest last month triggered similar contention in Wisconsin, where an online petition and opposition by Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf circulated.

The push to ban contests hasn’t prevailed in Wisconsin or Minnesota, but it has in other states. In 2014, California officials prohibited coyote hunting contests that offer prizes. In Idaho and Oregon, lawsuits by conservation groups have prompted bans or reductions on such hunts.

The Minnesota contest is also supported by Buffalo Ridge Gobblers, the Marshall Visitors Bureau, Lyon County Pheasants Forever and Prairie Highlands QDMA. It donates some proceeds from the $60 registration to restoring wild turkey habitats.

A DNR representative said recently that the state’s annual harvest from hunting and trapping ranges from 17,000 to 44,000 coyotes, with numbers influenced by pelt prices.