By David Hart
Thirty years ago, a glimpse of a coyote in the southeast or mid-Atlantic was as rare as a bigfoot sighting in the Pacific northwest. Not anymore. While bigfoot hunters may still be searching for proof of the elusive creature, deer hunters throughout the East have seen all they need to see. Coyotes are everywhere. Their abundance has prompted many hunters to wonder if they are having an impact on whitetail deer populations.
Rest assured, they are. South Carolina’s deer population has declined by 30 percent since the mid-1990s and other states in the southeast have seen similar declines in some regions. The decline coincides with the increase in coyote numbers.
A ground-breaking study conducted in South Carolina confirmed the relationship. Coyotes are indeed responsible for declining deer numbers. Researchers examined fawn mortality rates in one phase of the multi-pronged study on western South Carolina’s 300-square mile Savannah River Site. Of 60 fawns fitted with radio transmitters 44 did not survive to adulthood. All but one of those deaths was attributed to bobcats and coyotes, but coyotes killed 36 of the 44. Similar studies have found equal rates of predation on fawns by coyotes.
No Simple Solutions
For some hunters, the answer to reducing fawn predation is easy: Shoot coyotes on sight. Unfortunately, that won’t have much of an impact on fawn survival or coyote populations. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources deer project leader Dr. Charles Ruth says hunters can’t knock down a coyote population enough to make a noticeable difference. Hunters killed more than 32,000 coyotes in South Carolina is 2011, a number that has increased dramatically in the last 20 years. Most were killed by deer hunters. Despite the increased harvest, South Carolina’s deer population continued to fall.
Even intense trapping may not have much of an impact. During another phase of the Savannah River study, researchers hired trappers to catch every coyote they could, making sure the trapping efforts took place right up until the fawning season. The first season, trappers caught 169 coyotes. Fawn survival doubled. The next year, however, fawn survival plummeted to pre-trapping rates, even though trappers caught and removed about 160 more coyotes. About the same number of coyotes were caught the following year, but the number of fawns that made it to adulthood was “somewhere in the middle,” says Ruth, who participated in the study.
Ruth and his fellow researchers don’t know why recruitment fluctuated from year-to-year, but it offered an interesting insight into the complex relationship between coyotes and deer.
It also painted a grim picture for hunters who think killing the random coyote will help their local deer population. In order to have a positive impact on fawn recruitment, it’s vital to remove up to 70 percent of coyotes from a particular area, according to at least two research projects conducted in Utah in the past 20 years. Those studies focused on mule deer and antelope, but it provided valuable insight into the effect of coyote predation. That’s not to say a concerted effort to kill coyotes won’t help at all. Ruth, however, says trapping is the most effective coyote management tool.
“A good trapper can make a bunch of sets in a few days,” he says, “and the traps are working 24 hours a day. I don’t think hunting them is nearly as effective and I doubt hunters could kill enough coyotes to make a difference.”
But even intense trapping may not help much, as the Savannah River Site study proved. Coyotes respond to population declines by producing more pups and filling areas with low coyote densities through migration.
In other words, coyotes are here to stay. As a result, hunters and wildlife biologists will have to take a new approach to whitetail management, says Ruth. His agency is already reducing the antlerless harvest in some regions to account for an increase in coyote predation. Other state wildlife agencies are examining new deer harvest strategies, as well.
Ruth also suggests hunters who are concerned about declining deer numbers institute a management plan of their own that includes decreased doe harvests and habitat improvements. Shooting fewer does and giving fawns more places to hide may not be the ultimate solution, but so far, it’s the only answer to the coyote effect.
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