January 27, 2023

80% of Fawn Deaths Attributed to Coyotes

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coyotestakedownbuckBack in 1994, Dr. Valerius Geist, professor emeritus, University of Calgary, spoke to the Southeast Deer Study Group who were lamenting what to do about their whitetail deer management problems. What was their “problem?” Too many deer. In response, Dr. Geist was quoted as saying:

Enjoy your problem while it lasts, because the coyote is coming. Once he’s here, you’ll miss your deer problems.

Apparently Dr. Geist’s crystal ball was accurate. The coyotes, of the so-called “Eastern” variety are well established in the eastern portion of the United States, on up into the Northeast, where those coyotes have been determined to be a hybrid of coyote, wolf and domestic dog. In addition, nearly 20 years later, it appears the problem of too many deer in some southeast locations has evolved into a problem of asking, where are the deer going?

Be it also known that the western coyote and eastern coyote are not the same and therefore to transfer deer and coyote management problems from one region to the other is a lesson in fool’s folly.

There’s an article in the Grandview Outdoors on how coyotes affect whitetail deer. In this article, the author makes reference to a six-year study that took place in the Southeast pertaining to interactions between coyotes and whitetail deer. I have written in the past about this study and other more recent studies on coyote/deer behavior and interaction. Please find some of those articles here, here, here, here, here.

Pertaining to one study the author in reference says:

If the collar stopped moving for a set period of time, indicating the fawn had died, researchers went to the site and determined the cause of mortality.

The results were astounding. Researchers involved in the study, which took place on the grounds of the Savannah River nuclear facility site, knew coyotes ate deer fawns. They had no idea they ate so many. As it turned out, 80 percent of the fawns that died from all causes were killed by coyotes.

Most of us understand that large predators, i.e. coyotes, wolves, bears, lions, etc. kill whitetail deer. Some think this only happens to the fawns but study after study, along with photo documentation, has shown that coyotes, for example, take down full grown adult deer and similarly sized livestock. What must be remembered is that what is good deer and predator management in South Carolina, may not work so well in Maine or any other state.

There’s another issue that comes up in this article that disturbs me. In extolling the virtuous benefits of the results of this study to determine how coyotes affect whitetail deer herds, the author spends a good amount of time telling of how researchers had to kill off virtually all of the coyotes within the study area in order to make a determination of how the deer herd reacted without coyotes. It was a difficult task but it was undertaken and, I assume, was successful, otherwise the study would not have produced reliable results.

With all the fuss and rigamarole about killing off all the coyotes for the study, the author then makes this statement:

In other words, the random shooting of the occasional coyote will likely have no noticeable effect on fawn recruitment rates. That’s not to say shooting every coyote you see won’t help at all, but South Carolina deer hunters shoot about 30,000 coyotes each year. Still, the state’s deer population has declined by about 30 percent since 2002.

However, toward the end of the article, we learn the real feelings about predators, or at least coyotes, from the project leader of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Charles Ruth:

Adams agrees with Ruth that killing the occasional coyote will have little effect on deer populations. Removing a few predators from the landscape only creates a void that others from surrounding areas will fill. Numerous studies have found that at least 75 percent of coyotes must be removed from an area in order to have an impact on fawn survival. No hunter or hunt club can achieve that rate through recreational hunting alone.

“Focus on the things you can have an impact on, like habitat and reducing the harvest of antlerless deer,” says Adams. “Coyotes are here to stay, and the sooner hunters realize that we can’t shoot or trap our way out of them, the quicker we can focus on things that we can do that will make a difference.”

Spoken as a true, modern day predator lover and destroyer of hunting opportunities.

Prior to this profound statement, the author talks at length about everything a hunter can do in his hunting area to improve the deer herd – anything from counting deer, determining fawn/doe ratios, and hacking up the forest to create better cover so coyotes can’t find a fawn hidden in the brush. I wonder if these people understand the sense of smell a coyote, bear, wolf, etc has, in that they can smell a newborn fawn from great distances away? Having thick undergrowth may help with escape but how many hunters can actually manipulate the forests where they hunt in the fashion suggested.

But all of this isn’t the worst of it. The suggestion from the officials is to don’t bother with attempting any kind of predator management and that hunters need to learn to live with predators by giving up more and more hunting opportunity.

On the surface this may sound like good advice if you live in a state where multiple deer can be harvested. Reducing the number of antlerless deer permits to increase the number of fawns to ultimately boost fawn recruitment, in most cases, has proven to be a viable tool. However, are hunters supposed to settle for less opportunity and give up on predator management?

The author states that South Carolina’s deer population has shrunk 30%. This kind of attitude of making hunters to continue giving up more and more opportunities to harvest deer, is THE trend nationwide. Reality is, this approach isn’t working – at least as it may pertain to protecting the investment that hunters have and continue to make over the years.

So, what good are any of these suggestions in states, like Maine, where the deer herd is struggling, hunters are allowed one deer, antlered only, unless by permit and in some cases of archery hunting? Maine hunters have been giving up deer hunting harvest opportunity for years and in some of those years, permits for antlerless deer have all but been eliminated statewide. And yet, predation from coyotes, bears, bobcat, lynx and others, is taking it’s toll on the deer herd.

Perhaps when Dr. Val Geist was looking into his crystal ball nearly 20 years ago, he should have told these guys that when the deer herd begins to drop because of an overgrown population of coyotes, reducing opportunities, while thinking there is nothing that can be done about predator control, is a pretty good recipe for a failed deer management plan. There must be predator control as part of any game management plan.

Absolutely hunters need to understand that they compete with predators for the valued venison but they should not allow fish and game, so-called experts, to dictate that there is nothing that can be done about predators, and that hunters should just be prepared to give up their chances to harvest game.

The last thing hunters should be doing, and the last thing fellow hunters should be suggesting, is giving up hunting opportunities.