Plants Aren’t the Only thing Grown on Your Property
By Bob Humphrey
The role of hunters is changing. The advancement of programs like Quality Deer Management has prompted an evolution from a mere “consumer” to now a “producer-consumer,” and a “hunter conservationist.” Sportsmen are no longer concerned with just harvesting deer. They realize that deer are a “crop” and by employing the right measures they can produce a bigger, better crop. Much of the attention has gone to providing better nutrition through habitat management, but that’s only part of the equation. The modern hunter-conservationist can also manage the deer crop by reducing mortality and increasing productivity, and it starts at the lowest level.
In my formative years as a wildlife biologist and a deer hunter I learned that an adult doe should produce slightly less than two fawns per year during her prime breeding years. That was the figure we used to run population models, and what I observed in the field each fall. A lot has changed since then. In theory, the does should still be producing that many fawns, but in practice they’re not. Seeing an adult doe with twin fawns while out hunting has become the exception rather than the rule. Far too often I see does with singles, or no offspring at all.
One of the primary reasons is predation. The problem has gotten so bad that it was the theme for the 2012 meeting of the Southeast Deer Study Group. A recent U.S. Forest Service study in South Carolina found coyote predation accounted for between 46 and 84 percent of all deer mortality; and somewhere between 47 and 62 percent of all fawns succumbed to coyote predation. Meanwhile, South Carolina’s statewide deer population has declined by an estimated 30 percent. Other studies in Georgia and Alabama have generated similar results. And that’s where coyotes are still a relatively new predator.
The problem is worse in the northeast, where coyotes have been established since the late 1970s and early 1980s. Over a decade ago, Maine deer biologist Gerry Lavigne reported that coyote predation accounted for nearly 30 percent of annual deer mortality and since then coyote numbers have increased and deer numbers declined, significantly in some parts of the state.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania researchers found blackbear predation may be having a far greater effect on deer, particularly fawns, than was once thought. Elsewhere, the Upper- Midwest has wolves, and though they have less of an impact, bobcats and mountain lions also take their share of deer.
Still, the biggest culprit is old “Wile E. Coyote.” Numerous examples were cited at the Southeast Deer Study group meeting before somebody finally acknowledged the elephant in the room by admitting that coyotes are here to stay, and widespread efforts to eradicate them have failed time and time again. That doesn’t mean they can’t be controlled.
This past winter marked the beginning of a somewhat controversial program to do just that in Maine, where deer concentrated into winter yards are easy prey. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (FW) designated priority areas for deer recovery. For the first phase of the program they recruited trappers, who were instructed to concentrate their efforts in these priority areas during the fall trapping season. The second phase involved concentrated hunting efforts in the same areas, once winter yarding conditions exist. Time will tell whether it’s effective, but even if it saves a few deer, it’s a step in the right direction.