Wile E. Coyote has been front and center in many southeastern publications for the last few years. From popular hunting journals to scientific publications, much as been written about the impacts of coyotes on whitetail deer populations, namely the impact on fawn recruitment. Almost every deer hunter you talk to blames low deer numbers on coyotes. Numerous scientific research projects have documented low fawn recruitment resulting from coyote predation. Several studies have shown dramatic increases in fawn survival following coyote removal, while others show mixed results.
So what are we to believe? Let’s start with what we know. Coyotes arrived in the southeastern U.S. in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the result of relocation by “fox hunters.” While these relocations were not necessarily legal, they were certainly successful and since that time coyote populations have spread and are now common throughout the South. During the 1980s and ‘90s deer populations were also expanding across the South, filling vacant habitats and in fact over-populating many areas. Along about this time, either-sex deer harvest began to take hold in an effort to balance deer numbers with habitat conditions. We can be certain that coyotes were eating deer fawns during this period, however deer populations were so high and coyote populations relatively low, that no one noticed. In the early 2000s the either-sex harvests were beginning to have an impact on herd numbers and coyote numbers were starting to increase. We were setting up for the perfect storm!
A recent study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service at the Savannah River Site, near Aiken, South Carolina has provided some interesting and revealing facts about coyote induced fawn mortality. A 3-year removal effort, conducted on 3 – 8,000 acre areas, removed a total of 474 coyotes. This is an average of 158 coyotes per year (there was no significant difference in the number of coyotes caught between years) and 4.2 coyotes removed per square mile per year. There was a 78% reduction in coyotes following the first trapping season (mid-January – March) and it leveled off after that. Sixty-four percent of coyotes removed were <1 year old.
Fawn survival increased from 21% the year before trapping to 51% the 1st year after trapping, decreased to 23% in year 2, and increased to 43% in year 3. While there was an overall increase in fawn recruitment during the trapping period, it was modest and highly variable. One important thing they did figure out during this study is that coyote predation on fawns was additive mortality, meaning that this mortality would not have occurred had the coyotes not been present. Another interesting thing they learned was that habitat cover, i.e. heavy cover to hide fawns, had no impact on fawn survival.
So where does this leave us? First of all, coyotes are here to stay. Coyote control programs have been going on out West for decades and they still have plenty! Coyotes do prey on deer, primarily on young fawns, and can impact overall deer numbers. Coyote trapping can provide short-term relief for fawns; however trapping is expensive and requires knowledgeable trappers to be successful. If the decision is made to trap, it should be done just prior to the peak of fawn populations, which here in south Georgia is around August 1.
Assuming an aggressive coyote trapping program is not feasible for most landowners, what options are left for maintaining acceptable deer herds? There are two: habitat improvement and managing the doe harvest. There is no substitute for good habitat management. Prescribed burning, selective herbicide use, timber harvest (both thinning and clear-cutting), and year-round supplemental feeding, via food plots and/or feeders (key here is year-round) will improve habitat conditions for deer and many other wildlife species.
It took a long time for many hunters to embrace either-sex harvest but once we did, we really did! It is not something we are willing to give up easily nor should we, but we need to be smart about it. To really know if your property can handle doe harvest you need some idea of herd dynamics: population structure, buck/doe ratio, doe/fawn ratio, fawn recruitment, etc. These numbers can be collected with a properly designed camera survey. Collecting harvest data on deer killed on your property is also an important part of the equation.
Shooting an occasional coyote when the opportunity arises, while it certainly may make you feel better, will have little impact on your deer herd. A good trapping program can help but if you have limited resources, those resources are much better spent on habitat improvement efforts. Additionally, a reduced doe harvest may be necessary to compensate for coyote predation. As we have said many times, there is not a Silver Bullet in deer management so let’s control the things we can – doe harvest and habitat and not lose a lot of sleep over things we can’t – coyotes.
Enjoy your season and good hunting.
Certified Wildlife Biologist
Wiregrass Ecological Associates