Editors Blog

Are Coyotes Killing Your Deer?

I’ll never forget the first time I looked into the eyes of a death dog.

It was a tooth-cracking cold morning in Arkansas when I crawled into a small tower blind overlooking a vast wheat field. The landowner gave me specific orders to shoot as many does as possible to help with his management program.

“By the way,” he said as he walked me to my stand. “If you see a coyote, kill it, too. They’re wreaking havoc on our deer herd.” “Ten-four,” I nodded.

The morning was barely an hour old when I caught movement in a distant fence row. Coyote!

The alpha male was a prime specimen, and he seemed oblivious to my presence. He was out of shooting range, so I dug into my fanny pack and retrieved my adjustable deer call. I moved the call’s O-ring to “fawn” and let out a soft bleat. The coyote stopped in its tracks, did an about-face, and approached my stand. Within moments, I had the canine in my scope. His eyes said it all: He was mean and on a mission.

The crack of my .30-06 ended that operation and put a prime pelt in the landowner’s fur shed. 

The Truth of the Matter

Bagging a coyote during a deer hunt is certainly a bonus for opportunistic hunters. After all, coyotes are plentiful and their winter pelts are valuable. However, unless you live in the arid Southwest or the frigid North or Northeast, don’t think for a minute that you’re saving the deer herd by killing a few coyotes.

Over the years, I’ve talked with many well-intentioned hunters who have complained about high coyote populations on their deer hunting properties.

Invariably, coyotes get blamed for everything from sparse deer sightings to poor fawn recruitment.

One hunter even told me that he believes coyote predation caused an increase in bucks with inferior antlers on his property. He claimed coyotes were killing mature bucks in winter and leaving younger bucks to do all of the breeding.

Of course, there isn’t a shred of scientific evidence to back up such claims. In fact, many of these anecdotes border on sheer nonsense. Researchers have proven that coyotes can capitalize on bumper crops of newborn fawns. Coyotes certainly chase healthy adult deer and manage to kill some on bare ground, but those instances are extremely rare.

What’s more, coyote predation on deer is marginal at best in middle-tier states.

D&DH Research Editor John Ozoga spent much of his professional career studying such things as predation on white-tailed deer herds. He can recite scores of research projects that have proven predation on deer is a fraction of what many hunters believe it is.

“Studies have shown that newborn fawn mortality can be 20 percent to 25percent once fawns reach four or five weeks old and become more active,” Ozoga said. “But a healthy deer herd can easily handle that.”

Ozoga added that such results are on par with what he found with black bear predation on newborn fawns. In those studies, Ozoga noted that bears can kill up to 22 percent of newborn fawns during optimum predation conditions — poor habitat and high deer densities.

When asked to estimate a worst-case scenario for the lower Midwest, Ozoga said coyote predation on adult deer would barely register a couple of percentage points annually. “Yes, it happens, but they (coyotes) are not very successful, especially on bare ground,” he said.

One study in Illinois’ farm country, for example, showed that total mortality of newborn fawns was just 10 percent, and that included deaths from accidents, abandonment and birth defects.

Other Studies

Coyotes aren’t the only furbearers that get a bad rap with whitetail hunters. The evil-predator argument has also been extended to include bobcats, mountain lions, timber wolves and even fishers. However, in all of these cases, predator control has been scientifically proven to be a nonfactor in helping save deer herds.

For example, in 1981, Quebec biologist D. Banville showed that intense predator control efforts failed to substantially reduce wolf and coyote predation on whitetailed deer in the province.

The same has been proven in the Northern forests, where researchers conducted studies in 1962, 1966, 1969, 1971 and 1972.

A general conclusion of all five studies was that coyotes and bobcats killed some weakened adult deer living in deer yards during winters with deep,crusted snow. However, the losses were relatively low and deer herds quickly rebounded. It’s important to note that deer densities then were a fraction of what they are now.

Research has also shown that deer predation by domestic dogs can be much worse than that caused by wolves or coyotes.

In Michigan, for example, domestic dogs kill an estimated 5,000 deer annually. Another study was conducted by researchers in Saskatchewan in 1975. That study showed 81 percent of deer killed by dogs and coyotes were already predisposed to various disease conditions, like malnutrition and starvation.

“That’s the wild card in a lot of these situations,” Ozoga said. “Many times, especially in the Southwest, coyotes kill deer that are already predisposed to malnutrition and disease.” In other words, people blame coyotes for killing deer that would probably have died even if there were no predators on the landscape. To be fair, not all deer experts agree with the research. 

For example, Leonard Lee Rue III believes coyotes kill more deer than what researchers have shown. He bases his opinions on experiences he’s had with raising deer and managing hunting club properties in New Jersey.

Southwest Considerations

Coyotes are North America’s most adaptable predator. Translation: They eat what they can, when they can. In the Southwest, where drought plays a major factor in animal populations, the odds are sometimes heavily tipped in the coyote’s favor.

Several studies in South Texas showed that coyotes are most opportunistic on deer in summer. One study at the Welder Wildlife Refuge near Sinton, Texas, showed that newborn fawns accounted for 75 percent of the local coyote population’s June diet. Additional studies by Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists from 1967 through 1969 found deer hair in 57 percent of coyote scats examined during summer.

Such losses, however, are more often the result of improperly managed deer herds. In fact, Texas biologist Bob Zaiglin believes coyotes can actually help control Southwest deer populations.

He used several scientific studies to prove his point while writing on the topic in the March 1997 issue of D&DH. “The fact is, coyotes can and do kill deer,” Zaiglin said.

But that’s not always bad, depending on the region in question. One of the most difficult problems deer herds face is mushrooming populations — not just in Texas, but across much of the United States.

“Make no mistake: Legal hunting can control most deer populations,” Zaiglin added. “But only when hunters shoot a prescribed number of does.”

In the final analysis, Southwest coyotes are a much greater threat to livestock, and that’s why they’re often considered public enemy No. 1. When they prey heavily on newborn fawns, it’s usually a sign that Mother Nature is working to balance population inequities.

Northeast Considerations

Unlike the small, 20- to 25-pound coyotes of the Southwest, the Northeast is home to a much larger subspecies. Weighing up to 55 pounds, the Eastern coyote of the Adirondacks is believed to be a distant coyote-timber wolf crossbreed.

Populations of these coyotes have been shown to prey heavily on deer in certain situations. In a landmark study that spanned 12 years, Maine biologists collected teeth and bones from 760 winter coyote-killed deer.

The researchers then documented the sex and age of each deer, as well as individual health (based on bone marrow fat content). On startling conclusion was Eastern coyotes do not target just young and sick deer when favorable conditions exist. In fact, researchers learned these coyotes prey nonselectively upon mature bucks and does that are otherwise healthy.

Weather conditions, however, were the key factor in this study. To prey nonselectively, the coyotes needed extreme snow depths and extended periods of cold weather. Under such conditions, coyotes could theoretically remove enough adult does from a herd to markedly affect local populations.

Bob Noonan is a Northeast coyote trapping expert and a field editor for The Trapper & Predator Caller magazine. Despite being a predator control advocate, Noonan admits that single-species management is not the end-all answer to maintaining deer numbers.

"There’s little doubt that coyote control, aimed at removing the coyotes that are killing deer in their winter yards, greatly helps the Northeast deer herd," Noonan reported. "And due to the rough terrain, remote location of some of the yards, and harsh weather conditions, the only really dependable coyote control tool is the snare."

He goes on to explain that even snaring is only effective when done on a large scale and continued on an annual basis.

Noonan said a good example of how coyote control can benefit deer is what happened on the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec, just north of the Maine border. In 1986, had a healthy herd of about 15,000 whitetails, and a low coyote population.

However, after several consecutive harsh winters — and extensive clear-cutting that eliminated traditional yarding areas — coyotes got the upper hand and wreaked havoc on the deer population.

By 1991, researchers estimated that only 500 deer remained on the peninsula. To save the herd, the province banned deer hunting, implemented strict logging regulations and implemented an aggressive coyote snaring program.

According to Noonan, 80 trappers were trained to snare coyotes, and they were instructed to focus their efforts on 80 percent of the remaining deer yards.

The plan worked. In just three years, the trappers caught 1,500 coyotes. Deer numbers rebounded, and by 1999, the peninsula had a population of more than 2,000 whitetails.

However, the coyote problem didn’t end there. When the snaring program was stopped for two years, the coyote population rebounded, and the deer population again decreased.

As a result, the peninsula instituted a subsidized trapping program that is still used today.

“That’s an extreme example,” Noonan wrote. “In Maine, for example, the Eastern coyote is often labeled as the single greatest threat to local deer herds. In reality, the coyote’s presence is just one of many factors that limits deer productivity. For example, biologists have proven that changes in deer yard quality and overall logging practices have as much, if not more, impact on deer survival.”

What’s the Solution?

The answer to improving deer numbers on any property is to provide them with quality habitat. A fact lost in this whole discussion is coyotes prefer to eat small mammals and birds, and huge surpluses of those menu items can be created by improving your deer habitat.

Plant trees, shrubs and other native plant species, create water sources and, whenever possible, create jungle-like bedding areas through wise logging practices. Learn what types of species you can plant in your area, and determine how, when and where to conduct the project.

Some species of preferred deer browse are invasive, meaning they can quickly take over a landscape and choke out other desirable plants, trees and shrubs. On the other hand, planting too few of a species can be a colossal waste of time, because deer will immediately browse them to the point of killing the plants and their root systems.

Conclusion

If coyote predation on deer is a natural fact, should hunters never kill coyotes? No. As previously mentioned, taking a coyote with a bow or gun can provide for an exciting hunt. However, if your main purpose of shooting a coyote is simply just to “take it off the landscape,” and you have no intention of utilizing the animal, let it walk. Wanton waste of game is not only illegal, it’s immoral.

— Daniel Schmidt is the editor of D&DH.

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