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Are Coyotes Killing Deer?

by Doug Howlett   |  May 26th, 2011 8

It was a perfect fall morning, cool and just a bit overcast. I was perched in a climbing stand 20 feet above the intersection of two well-worn deer trails that crisscrossed a hardwood ridge top. Three does were slowly feeding in my direction from the opposite ridge. They were at least 75 yards away–still well out of bow range–so I sat back and enjoyed the scene, hoping the heavy-racked buck I had spied the week before would join them.

In certain study areas, coyotes have accounted for up to 75 percent of fawn mortality.

Without warning, all three does bolted out of sight, their white tails waving and shrill snorts of alarm piercing the air. Perplexed at the sudden panic, I quickly suspected a shift in the breeze, but the wind was still in my face.

No way they smelled me, I thought.

About that time, the sound of rustling leaves intruded from my left. The general area I was hunting was smack dab in the middle of a very rural county, but the actual tract I was on was surrounded by several homes owned by what I call nouveau country folks–former city dwellers who read one too many Southern Living magazines and fell in love with the idea of rural living. Therefore, my first thought was that some idiot was jogging along a path that cut from the landowner’s yard to the river below.

Then the culprit appeared. I had to blink to be sure what I was looking at. Before me was a huge, mangy coyote, trotting toward where the deer had been standing. This was more than 14 years ago, and at the time it was only the second coyote I’d ever seen, the first one being while I was hunting in Wyoming–out West, where they were supposed to be. This was Virginia. While news reports would soon reflect the fears of local rancers regarding the canine invasion, I remember initially being excited about their arrival.

Something else to hunt, I excitedly mused. Stupid me.

A Predator Moves In
More than virtually any other species in North America, even wild hogs, coyotes have expanded their range, and they are now found in every state. Are coyotes killing deer? They have even moved comfortably into some suburban areas, where they occasionally make news after attacking and killing somebody’s small pet. In rarer cases, young children have been attacked while playing in their yards, and in a truly bizarre case last October, a 19-year-old folk singer was killed by coyotes while hiking in eastern Canada.

In general, however, the canines prey on smaller game such as voles, mice, squirrels, rabbits, birds, turkey eggs and the like. While turkey hunters have openly discussed how to minimize the negative impact coyote populations may have on wild turkey numbers, such debate has largely been absent among deer hunting circles. That is about to change.

A study conducted by U.S. Forest Service Research Wildlife Biologist John Kilgo at Savannah River Site in South Carolina is revealing a stark picture of coyote predation on deer populations. The site, a 310-square-mile nuclear processing facility operated by the Department of Energy, is virtually all undeveloped pine lands, creating a unique real-world laboratory for researchers to study wildlife dynamics in the southeast. This is an area largely devoid of natural predators, until now.

The Predation Effect
“Until five years ago, nobody was worried about the coyote’s impact on deer,” says Kilgo. “Now we have evidence they are significantly impacting some populations.”

However, the problem isn’t one that affects mature deer, at least not in the southeast, which experiences little snowfall and accumulation to weaken and slow large creatures, making them vulnerable to predation.

“There’s no evidence coyotes prey on adult deer,” says Kilgo. The concern is with fawns, particularly in their first week of life when they are most vulnerable. While studies on coyote predation have been performed in the past, none has been carried out with the immediate data collection that Kilgo’s team has utilized.

For the past three years, they have implanted transmitters into pregnant does in the winter. Then when the does drop their fawns in the spring, the transmitter alerts the researchers and they can go in right away and place radio collars on the fawns. Past studies centered on researchers finding fawns on their own, typically a week or more after they were born. The difference the first week makes in a fawn’s ability to survive a potential coyote attack appears to be significant.

“A lot of other studies may have underestimated the effects of predation by catching fawns that are a week or more older,” says Kilgo. “We’re seeing as much as 75 percent mortality with some populations, with predation results ranging overall in the neighborhood of 50 to 85 percent.” Even at the more conservative average of 75 percent, that is three out of every four fawns being lost to coyotes.

When asked how sure he is that coyotes are indeed the cause of death and are not just happening upon carcasses and scavenging them, Kilgo is confident his numbers stand up.

“If a radio collar [on a fawn] hasn’t moved for four hours, we go in right away,” he says. “The chances the fawn died and within four hours a coyote found it are pretty minimal.”

Be Prepared To Share
Ninety fawns have been tracked over the past three years as part of Kilgo’s study. A few were killed by bobcats, some were hit by cars, one was bitten by a snake, a few are unknown and occasionally one will be abandoned. All of those causes combined account for less than 5 percent of the fawn mortality in the study; the rest are the result of coyote predation.

This is not good news for wildlife managers and property owners managing their lands for optimal deer herds. Part of their management regimen may soon need to include some effort at predator control. Of course, this does provide sportsmen with another hunting or trapping opportunity–in most cases year-round. It’s one many sportsmen are ready to embrace, as evidenced by the swelling ranks of predator hunters. The stakes may be higher now, as nobody wants to see whitetail hunting diminished for the benefit of another species.

The truth is, even if every one of us takes to the woods in an effort to reduce the number of predators threatening each year’s crop of fawns, it’s unlikely that we could completely eradicate the coyote from its new range. When asked what he sees as the most likely outcome of this battle, Kilgo is matter-of-fact.

“We may just have to start sharing our deer with the coyotes,” he says.

  • Clay

    This is silly, i think either Kilgo is simple minded or you are twisting his words. Any wildlife manager worth his pay cares about the ecosystem as a whole, and not just deer. The fact is there are more deer then ever, and the coyotes are just filling a niche that the wolves and cougars arent around to fill in the east anymore. Most wildlife agencies including the TWRA in my homestate of Tn are trying to get hunters to kill more deer, because people in the suburbs are compaining about there high numbers and the threat they pose to vehicles and gardens. Farmers are complaining about crop damage in the countryside. It is also notworthy to mention that deer easily overbrowse their range and cause a decrease in biodiversity of plant life, which hurts other wildlife. Not to mention that many bird lovers celebrate the coyote, because they are helping to keep in check nest robbing meso carnivores like oppossum, raccon, and skunk. I love deer hunting, but every time I hear someone push the panick button because of coyotes it just dissapoints me.

  • Mike

    @ Clay: Everything that the Author and Mr. Kilgo are reporting is accurate. I've hunted all over South Carolina and Georgia and I have noticed a significant drop in yearling and fawn sightings (deer in general) over the past 10 years while in the woods. The deer harvest numbers per hunter reflect this in almost every county in SC and GA. That's not to say that you will not still have crop damage because a field is a safe haven for a heard of deer. Suburbs is also safer as coyotes do not venture into suburbs unless food sources are dwindling. This is disturbing if you lease large properties or if hunting is a major source of capita for a state like Alabama, GA, or SC. Each area is different depending on the amount of coyotes but they are in fact a significant predator to deer fawns at a 75% or more mortality rate. I've discussed this with wildlife biologist and technicians all over the state and each have witnessed the deer population dwindle from 1.3 M estimated in 2000 to about 375k present in SC. Those figures fully support the ~ 25% survial ratio of fawns. The good news is that we have bottomed out. The bad news is that we have bottomed out as well. Even if you don't believe the extensive studies completed at the Savannah River Site by Kilgo and his team then google the studies done by the State of GA and UGA. Look at the results in Alabama and Texas of the eradication of coyotes vs. deer population. Maybe facts are not your strong point and if that is the case then you are the simple minded one here.

  • Dale Bennicke

    I'm in Nova Scotia canada, and here the coyotes can go up to 60lbs and they kill adult deer here. our deer population has been down for a number of years despite fairly easy winters and I think coyotes are killing a lot of fawns as we are seeing many barren does this summer. You can hunt 3 days here and not see a deer of any description let alone a buck.

  • Brad

    I live in Northeast Iowa. I have had 2 game cameras set up on coyote dens this spring and summer. This year on the dens the cameras to pictures of 23 fawn kills on one den and 28 on the other. 51 deer by 2 female coyotes. The dens are in the same square mile section with about 220 acres of riverbottom timber and hardwoods. Coyotes are making a huge difference in the deer populations. One den had 4 pups and one had 3 survive until the were pushed out of the dens a week or so ago. I can't wait for the farmers to get the crops out so I can go after the coyotes. I have been a bowhunter for 35+ years and now spend more time hunting coyotes then deer. In the past I have stopped hunting coyote when they started to rub their fur. From now on I will hunt them untill the crops and tree growth make impssible.

  • skinbow

    And hes worried about just coyotes? In Minnesota we have those plus timber wolves and cougers….. oh wait……. sorry……..my bad…………. the Minn DNR does not recognize cougers in the state of Minn. The ones that are seen on trail cams, crossing roads, peoples yards. not to mention the ones seen by people walking, hiking or hunting are just passing thru the state. so im sure they wont kill that many deer right? oh ya, cant forget about the black bears, im sure they maybe take one or two out if they could. I would rather take his coyote problem then the timber wolf problem we have now. oh wait……. im sorry…… the minn DNR says we dont have a timber wolf problem here.

  • dave

    The DNR don't care if the coyotes are killing deer, all they are interested in collecting money. There used to be a $35 bounty on them here, now there is nothing. The wolves are taking over as well. I shoot as many as I can, in my back yard. As soon as someone's child is killed, just maybe, they will start doing something about it. They told me that they won't attack a human, but hunger will do crazy things. Michigan does not have any mountain lions, they told me that as well. About 15 miles from my place, there are 2 giant kitty cats, yea, that's what they are.

  • Dave

    YA to da U.P. don'tjano

  • Bill

    We have a serious problem with coyotes. I have a lease in South Carolina. 3 years ago we had plenty of deer. We would let deer walk almost everyday. 2 years ago started hearing coyotes. This year we have more coyote tracks than deer tracks. We killed 2 coyotes and 2 deer. Oh and we saw groups of turkey, 14 or more 3 years ago. This year havent seen a turkey. Houston, we have a problem.

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