Everything old is new again

In Frederic Wagner's 1988 book, Predator Control and the Sheep Industry, he briefly mentioned the one-sided relationship between coyotes and deer in the United States. It wasn't the focus of the book, only a sidebar to an issue that was much more important to most Americans at the time: the damage coyotes inflict upon livestock operations across the nation.

Back then, he couldn't have known the damage coyotes do to deer populations would eventually become at least as important to Americans, if not more, than the hurt American song dogs put on domestic sheep.

Times have changed.

Deer management is no longer an afterthought, only about keeping them in check. The explosive growth of groups like the Quality Deer Management Association is proof.

In fact, it's not a stretch to say that in places, deer are more valuable financially, emotionally and recreationally than the domestic stock they share ground with.

Wagner unknowingly laid the groundwork for modern coyote/deer studies by challenging early studies (1970, 1976) that he said concluded, "Predation and coyotes came to be considered by many wildlife biologists a relatively minor influence on big-game populations."

According to Wagner, later studies more accurately described the relationship between coyotes, deer and antelope.

"Coyote predation is a major source of fawn mortality, especially in summer when the fawns are quite young," he said. "The percentage of fawns killed has variously been reported to average 25 percent in a Wyoming study area to 37 percent in an Oregon study."

He additionally noted that several other studies revealed the number of fawns per 100 does increased after intensive coyote control.

None of this was as important in 1988 as it is today, but to cite the information was prophetic.

Modern studies not only confirm Wagner's conclusions, they also paint an even bleaker picture for the well-being of deer forced to cohabitate with our growing coyote population.

At the most recent QDMA conference, there was lots of discussion about coyotes.

"Soon to be compiled and released studies will definitively show coyotes have a larger influence on deer than we ever imagined," warned several well-known biologists.

QDMA's 2010 Whitetail Report contained the damning facts.

In a 2000 Penn State study, Justin Vreeland, Bret Wallingford and Dr. Duane Diefenbach captured and radio-collared 218 fawns. They then monitored them in both a forested site and an agricultural site.

They found that predators killed 22 percent of the fawns and were the leading cause of mortality.

They additionally noted that fawn predation was much higher in the forested habitat and that bears and coyotes took nearly equal numbers of fawns.

Strike one against the coyote.

Cory VanGilder, University of Georgia, conducted a more recent study. Along with Drs. Grant Woods and Karl Miller the men studied the effects of intense predator removal on whitetail deer recruitment in northeast Alabama.

They removed 22 coyotes and 10 bobcats from February through July 2007 on a 2,000-acre study site. This reduced the predator abundance indices to nearly zero immediately prior to the fawning season. The result was drastically increased fawn survival from 193 to 256 percent.

Strike two against the coyote.

Not to be outdone, University of Georgia student, Bret Howze conducted an even more ambitious study along with Drs. Robert Warren and Karl Miller of predation and whitetail deer recruitment in southwest Georgia.

This study identified two study areas. One 11,000-acre block had 23 coyotes and three bobcats removed between January and August 2008. A second 700-acre block was used for a control area and no predators were removed.

They revealed that two fawns were recruited for every three does in the predator removal zone, while it took over 28 does to recruit the same number of fawns in the zone where predators weren't removed.

Strike three against the coyote.

Additional studies support the conclusions of both Wagner and recent QDMA studies, but what, if anything, should deer managers and hunters do with the information?

Since 42 percent of a coyote's diet consists of small rodents in most places, no one is suggesting coyotes be extirpated from the whitetail deer's range.

They are part of the wild scenery and an integral part of the balance of nature. It's not likely we could kill them all, even if we wanted to, anyway. Western livestock farmers have been trying to eliminate the song dogs since they settled the west with no success.

This information is most important in places where there are either too many or not enough deer.

In places like the Black Hills, South Dakota or the Upper Peninsula, Michigan, where it's common to see more than 100 deer pile into a hay field before dark, it would seem counterproductive to remove such efficient deer culling machines.

On the other hand, where there aren't enough deer due to disease or mismanagement, as is currently the case in some parts of southern Wisconsin and central Indiana, it makes sense for hunters to spend as much time trapping and hunting coyotes as they do deer.

For its part, the QDMA 2010 Whitetail Report recognizes the changing role of coyotes in deer management on behalf of the modern deer hunter.

"Coyotes have successfully invaded all areas of the whitetail range and they'll be an annual variable in deer management programs. Whether rural or urban and North or South, coyotes are now part of the dynamic relationship between deer and the environment. Coyotes can affect deer herds [either] positively or negatively."

As the landscape in America changes both physically and socially, the coyote continues to adapt better than most. It's our job as deer hunters, farmers and stewards of the land to recognize their changing role and keep them in balance.