Barely five minutes had passed when I spied a quick flash of brown in the underbrush. Another deer? I thought, clipping my release onto the loop. A coyote stepped into the clearing and froze, staring at the recently fallen deer I had just arrowed. I chuckled to think what might be going through his mind at that moment. Here was 100 pounds of fresh venison, free for the taking — too good to be true. He was so fixated on the free lunch he failed to see or hear me draw from 18 feet above. A second arrow hit home, and I called it a very successful day.
Deer hunters’ attitudes toward coyotes run the gamut from mild indifference to utter disdain. For most bowhunters, they represent a target of opportunity. If one comes within range of our treestand, we’ll take a poke at it; but few of us deliberately seek them out. After hearing what some of the latest research says, however, you may consider taking a more offensive approach toward old Wile E.
The expansion (or re-settlement) of coyotes into the eastern U.S. is a relatively recent phenomenon. They arrived in northern New England during the late ’60s and early ’70s, expanded into eastern Atlantic Canada and southern New England by the late ’70s then continued southward into Pennsylvania and beyond. Prior to the mid-60s, none existed in southeastern states east of the Mississippi. Once they crossed the Big Muddy, they quickly expanded eastward from Arkansas and Louisiana all the way to the coast, then northward. Northern and southern populations eventually converged around the mid-80s in the central Appalachian mountains of Virginia and West Virginia.
Over the last 20 years or so, those of us east of the Mississippi have learned to live with coyotes, and they with us. And like the deer they pursue, coyotes have adapted quite well to living in and around humans. They’ve also become more efficient and effective as deer predators.
According to a 1995 report by former Maine deer biologist Gerry Lavigne, coyote predation accounted for nearly 30 percent of annual deer mortality (over 20,000 animals) in the Pine Tree State. The report further noted deer may represent 50-80 percent of the coyote’s diet in winter and early spring, and possibly as much as 90 percent during the fawning period in late May and early June. In the 15 years since, Maine’s deer population has declined while coyotes have increased in range and abundance. Recent DNA analysis shows northeastern coyotes have a higher incidence of wolf genes, skull characteristics and jaw musculature, which biologists suggest could improve their ability to kill large prey.
A recent South Carolina study conducted along the Savannah River — prompted in part by a sharp decline in fawn recruitment — found coyote predation accounted for between 46 and 84 percent of all deer mortality. Further, coyotes killed between 47 and 62 percent of all fawns on the study area, most within three weeks of birth. Furthermore, most fawns were killed by different coyotes. This learned behavior — keying in on whitetail fawns when they’re most vulnerable — appears to be pervasive, at least within the region, and quite possibly throughout the coyote’s range. While the biologists didn’t extrapolate these results to openly blame coyotes, they did note that a 30 percent statewide decline in South Carolina’s deer population coincided very neatly with a simultaneous expansion of coyote range and numbers.
Preliminary results of a Georgia study, meanwhile, found the percentage of deer hair in coyote scat nearly doubled during the fawning season. And Alabama researchers found coyote predation was the leading cause of fawn mortality in suburban areas around Auburn.
What To Do?
As these efficient predators continue taking an ever-greater share of the deer resource, sportsmen are pleading and biologists are searching for solutions. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. For more than a century, western states have attempted sometimes intensive eradication programs that included such drastic measures as year-round poisoning and aerial shooting — all to little or no avail.
Some hope comes from the place where, you could argue, the problems all started. Maine’s Gerry Lavigne predicts Eastern coyote populations will probably decline if their annual losses exceed 60 percent. That’s a tall order, but some studies suggest in heavily trapped areas, the combination of natural losses and fall trapping could amount to 40 percent of the coyote population. That still calls for an additional 20 percent removal, and according to Lavigne, the solution lies with the very deer hunters who stand to benefit.
“If coyotes are to be controlled, it must be done by private individuals and organizations,” Lavigne said. “Rather than relying on the government to solve this problem, deer hunters need to take greater responsibility for the quality of their hunting experience.”
Most states have very liberal coyote-hunting regulations. If yours does, you might want to consider taking advantage of those opportunities. Late summer is a good time, as young dogs are still fairly naive. Plus, it gets you and your equipment in shape for deer season. However, you can have the greatest positive impact on deer by concentrating your efforts in late winter and early spring, just prior to the periods when deer are most vulnerable to predation. Specific techniques are numerous and varied enough that it would take an entire feature article to describe. Suffice it to say there are many similarities to bowhunting whitetails.
Whether you want or need to do it ultimately becomes a personal choice. If deer populations are strong where you hunt, predator control may not be a priority. Nonetheless, it is another source of outdoor recreation and a viable wildlife-management tool. If your overriding goal is to produce a healthier whitetail population, it provides a means to that end, just a
s food plots do.