Buckmasters Magazine

The Coyote Equation

The Coyote Equation

By David Hart

Can we control the whitetail’s most prolific predator?

The verdict is in: Coyotes eat a lot of deer. Studies in South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and other states have found that predators can kill upwards of three-quarters of all fawns born in a given year. As a result, hunters everywhere have declared war on coyotes.

We shoot them at every opportunity, often sacrificing the chance at a deer in order to kill a coyote. Many of us have even taken up the thrilling and challenging sport of predator hunting.

A few deer hunters are even learning how to trap to put more heat on coyotes, all in an effort to protect the deer herd.

DOES IT WORK?

Researchers at South Carolina’s Savannah River Site, a 198,000-acre Department of Energy facility, removed a large number of coyotes from part of the facility to determine if they could increase fawn survival rates.

Over the course of the three-year study, trappers participating in the study removed 474 coyotes. That worked out to about four coyotes per square mile per year. Coyote abundance was reduced by about 78% overall, and fawn survival increased, likely as a result of the reduction in coyote numbers.

Prior to the study, about 80% of the fawns were killed by coyotes. After the first year, survival rates more than doubled. However, survival rates fell back to just 20% the second year, something researchers were unable to explain. They increased to about 41% the third year, indicating that removing coyotes can, at least to some extent, influence fawn survival rates.

REAL-WORLD CONSIDERATIONS

That doesn’t mean you should start shooting coyotes. In virtually all the studies that examined coyote control efforts and fawn recruitment, researchers used the services of experienced, professional trappers who were skilled at fooling a variety of animals.

The average deer hunter who has little or no experience catching coyotes will struggle to make a dent in the local population.

Coyotes are smart and difficult to catch, even for experienced trappers. They are even more difficult to call in to rifle range, particularly in the thick habitat typical of the South and Southeast.

The most successful trappers have a lifetime of experience and set dozens of traps on a single tract of land. What deer hunter with a full-time job has the time to run a trap line?

Researchers actually paid trappers, in part because most of their efforts took place prior to and during the fawning season when furs are of little value. Are you willing to put in the time necessary to catch your own coyotes or pay a local trapper to catch them for you?

What’s more, trappers on the Savannah River Site caught 169 coyotes the first year. They caught just 137 a year later. That might indicate they were successful in knocking down coyote populations. However, they caught 168 the third year.

Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center scientist Dr. Mike Connor examined the various studies that looked at coyote control efforts for at least two years, and that counted the number of coyotes trapped or otherwise removed from the study area. What he found was somewhat surprising.

“Predator numbers were right back up to their original levels within a year in every study, and fawn survival rates were back to the levels they were at before predator control efforts started,” he said. “That’s a good indication of how resilient large carnivores like coyotes and bobcats are. No matter how many you remove, more fill in the void.”

Ever heard the term “nature abhors a vacuum?” It’s true. As soon as something, whether a predator, a tree or an insect, is removed from the landscape, something else quickly fills the void.

Coyotes are no different.

If the habitat was attractive to one, another will take its place. Further, coyotes have a natural ability to compensate for decreases in their population. Some studies have found that as coyote populations fall, they produce larger litters to account for the drop.

The Coyote EquationWHY IT WON’T WORK

That’s why killing the occasional coyote or bobcat will have no noticeable impact on your deer herd or your hunting opportunities.

In fact, it might have the opposite effect, says Auburn University professor of wildlife ecology Dr. Steve Ditchkoff.

He says new research is showing that there are two types of coyotes: territorial and transient.

“Territorial coyotes might establish a home range and regulate their own numbers and protect their space from the transient coyotes,” Ditchkoff said. “By removing those territorial coyotes and the stability they bring, you end up creating a gap, which could have a greater impact on fawn predation rates.”

Ditchkoff also participated in studies that looked at the impact of coyote removal on populations and on fawn predation. As Conner found in previous studies, Dithckoff also found coyote populations rebounded to pre-study levels almost immediately.

“You can’t trap or shoot your way out of coyotes,” he said. “They are here to stay, and we are just going to have to learn how to deal with them in other ways. Shooting one or a hundred will have no long-term impact on fawn recruitment or deer numbers.”

FENCE THEM OUT

One option is to erect a predator-proof fence around your property. Conner and other scientists at the Joseph Jones Ecological Research Center in southwest Georgia installed four 100-acre enclosures 12 years ago to examine predation on various non-game species. They quickly realized the fences had a positive impact on whitetails, too.

Connor and fellow researchers noticed a spike in deer use, not just during the fawning season, but throughout the year. In fact, doe activity was five times greater inside the enclosures than outside during the fawning season.

“The increased use was pretty amazing,” Connor said. “Our deer densities were pretty low when we started this project, but they’ve gone up since.”

The woven-wire fences are less than four feet high and have three strands of electrified wire running on the outside, which keeps coyotes and other large predators out. Deer easily jump the fence, and fawns as young as 12 weeks can jump it.

Erecting a fence around the entire perimeter of your property is costly, of course. And without a strand of electricity running low to the ground, there’s a good chance a coyote would just dig under it. Connor says the electric wire is vital. However, the occasional coyote slipping in under the fence is certainly better than allowing them free range of your woods.

You don’t necessarily have to fence your entire property boundary, but Conner admits he doesn’t know how much land is the right amount.

“It might be 100 acres, but it could be larger or smaller,” he said. “I think the main thing is that when deer have a place they feel safe, at least some of them will utilize it.”

IS IT ETHICAL?

No matter what you do, remember this: The world is watching. Killing coyotes and bobcats to save deer might seem a like a great management tool, but these days, hunters are under the public microscope more than ever.

The recent attacks on hunters through social media show how far anti-hunters are willing to go to vilify someone engaged even in legal activities. Shooting predators in particular doesn’t sit well with the non-hunting public.

Some hunters who shoot or trap coyotes in the name of deer management actually utilize the fur or make trophies from the skulls and other parts. However, many deer hunters are content to leave the dead coyote on the ground. That doesn’t present a good image for our sport.

Be aware that your actions are under continuous public scrutiny.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

There’s nothing wrong with shooting a coyote if it is legal, but remember that science has shown removing the random predator will have no noticeable effect on your deer herd. That’s why you are better off focusing on the deer themselves.

Ditchkoff says hunters who are serious about managing their deer herd need to pay close attention to the number of females, which determines how many fawns hit the ground each year, and the number of fawns. Too few of each means one thing: Shoot fewer does.

“Instead of focusing on predators, you might have to adjust your doe harvest if you don’t have the number of deer your land can support,” Ditchkoff said. “I think in some places in the Southeast, we will no longer be able to shoot every deer we see. Coyotes are now part of the management equation.”

In other words, like it or not, coyotes are here to stay. We can’t shoot or trap our way out of them, no matter how hard we try.

The good news is the two animals will eventually find an equilibrium, according to Conner and Ditchkoff.

Deer and coyotes have coexisted throughout the central and western United States long before anyone gave a thought to the impact of predators on deer. It’s a safe bet they will find common ground in the South and Southeast, too.

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This article was published in the November 2015 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd