With coyotes having overspread the southeast and deer numbers declining in some areas, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has three questions to answer about maintaining a stable deer population:
• Do coyotes depress whitetail herds?
• What can be done about the increase in coyote numbers?
• What should the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission do, if anything?
A collaborative study by N.C. State University and the Smithsonian Institute admits, “In various studies, coyotes have caused fawn mortality as high as 50 percent and low as nine percent.” It cited research from Colorado, Texas, Wyoming and Utah, whose habitats don’t resemble North Carolina or the southeast, showing that coyotes don’t negatively affect deer populations and may even be beneficial to whitetails.
Studies closer to North Carolina reveal this about coyote-fawn depredation:
• A northern Alabama study, covering 2,000 acres where 22 coyotes and 10 bobcats were trapped, saw the fawn population double in one year.
• As part of a southwest Georgia study on 11,000 acres included 23 coyotes and three bobcats were removed. The next spring, 67 percent of does successfully raised fawns. Meanwhile, in a simultaneous study at 7,000 nearby acres — where no trapping occurred — only one of 28 does successfully reared fawns.
On South Carolina’s Savannah River Site, Dr. John Kilgo has conducted some of the South’s most extensive coyote-fawn studies.
In one, he collared and observed 60 fawns. After the first six weeks, 44 of the fawns were dead, 35 killed by coyotes and six by bobcats; three died by unknown causes. To date, Kilgo’s studies showed that 50 to 80 percent of week-old fawns were killed by coyotes.
“(We are) trying to get a better handle on (coyote predation),” said Jonathan Shaw, the Commission’s deer expert, who cited a two-year Fort Bragg study that revealed coyotes as the main fawn killers but said “extremely poor habitat may be a factor.”
“The majority (of fawn kills) were caused by coyotes,” he said. “But bobcats got some, and some died of starvation because of poor habitat and maybe poor physical condition.”
Shaw said the Commission is in the second year of its own survey.
“In the first survey, hunters saw .5 fawns per doe, but we don’t know if that’s the (correct) recruitment rate,” he said.
Shaw said the state has tried to curtail coyote numbers by allowing year-round hunting and trapping. However, those tactics haven’t cut coyote numbers in other states. Even bounties haven’t worked. Intense hunting has helped at small areas.
“We may have to drop back on the deer harvest,” he said. “But habitat improvement would help. With good habitat and thick cover, more fawns would survive. Also, if we improve the (buck/doe) balance in the breeding season, does would drop fawns at the same time. Predators can take only so many (fawns) at a time. We’d flood the market, so to speak.”