Coyotes may be impacting deer population in state

The after-Christmas deer hunters should have a fairly good season, since the weather forecasts are favorable to hunting. Cold and windy has been the pattern so far.

In the mountainous areas, there has been some snow and temperatures that don’t freeze your bones. I’m sure the ugly weather of the regular season spared many deer so those who can go flintlock hunting now should see more deer than usual. This season lasts until Jan 13.

Hunter’s complaints after the rifle season were the same as in the past several years, that there are simply not any deer in the mountainous or State Game Land areas. One of those animals that like to clean up the woods (gut piles, dead deer not recovered, etc.) are coyotes. Many sportsmen blame the increase in the coyote population in the last decade for the decline of the deer herd.

In response, many have taken up coyote hunting in the offseason. The Game Commission has not been silent about these creatures, however, and here is some of what they have to say about the subject.

“The coyote is surrounded by mystery. It has inhabited some parts of the state since the 1930s, but it’s a relative newcomer in others. Game Commission biologists are finding indications the coyote population is increasing in some areas of the state, yet even those who log endless hours in the Pennsylvania outdoors might go their lives without seeing one in the wild.”

Add to that the false, recurring rumors coyotes were stocked by insurance companies, and the idea that coyotes ravage the deer populations so important to Pennsylvania hunters, and the reasons for coyote’s mystique become even clearer.

“There are several predators in Pennsylvania that absolutely do kill deer, specifically young fawns,” said Chris Rosenberry, who heads the Game Commission’s deer and elk section. “Coyotes and bears top the list.”

In managing Pennsylvania’s deer populations, Rosenberry said the agency annually monitors fawn production and has the ability to compensate for fawns lost to predators and other causes by controlling the number of antlerless deer licenses allocated.

The Game Commission studied the effects of fawn predation years ago. The study found about half of all fawns born each spring survived to see the fall hunting seasons. Predators including coyotes, bears, bobcats and fishers were responsible for killing about 22 percent of the fawns that died.

Leading biologists from the U.S. Forest Service, Penn State, the University of Georgia, Mississippi State University, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the University of Alberta, and the Quality Deer Management Association, are among those who have provided input on evaluating the impact of predators on the state’s deer.

These biologists have led research throughout the eastern United States looking at the impact of predation on deer,” said then Game Commission Executive Director R. Matthew Hough. “Their experience and insight from their past and current research is of great interest to the agency, and to our hunters.”

One common opinion hunters hold is to use predator control to reduce predation on fawns. However, large-scale predator control repeatedly has been found not to work. For example, U.S. Forest Service researcher John Kilgo conducted research in South Carolina, which found that even when coyotes were taken in higher numbers, other coyotes quickly filled the void created by their absence.

“There is no doubt that predators such as bears and coyotes do prey on fawns,” Kilgo said. “Although some researchers have been able to find instances where increased coyote removal has improved fawn survival at a very local level, coyote removal on a large scale is impossible.”

One study showed fawns die for any number of reasons. Some die of natural causes, some are struck by vehicles, and one fawn in a study even fell down a well. Of the fawns taken by predators, nearly equal proportions were taken by coyotes, bobcats and bears. PGC bear biologist Ternent noted that Pennsylvania’s bear population is thriving.

Predator communities in Pennsylvania have changed during the past several decades due to increased coyote populations, fisher reintroductions and fishers dispersing in Pennsylvania from West Virginia. Management programs for bobcats and fishers also have targeted conservative harvests, allowing for growth in those populations.

“We know fawns are more vulnerable to mortality in the first week of life,” said Kip Adams, a wildlife biologist for the Quality Deer Management Association. “However, there are now small transmitters that can be implanted into captured does, and when a fawn is born, a signal is sent alerting researchers and leading them to the exact location, improving monitoring.”

The window within which fawns are preyed upon is relatively short. In actuality, the chances of fawns being preyed upon shrink with each passing day as fawns grow older and are more capable of fleeing from predators. Pennsylvania’s coyotes rarely take healthy adult deer, and ongoing monitoring has indicated predators have had a consistent rather than growing impact on fawns.

The public’s interest in predators is understandable. To thousands of Pennsylvanians, deer hunting isn’t just a form of recreation, but a passion and a way of life. And, like the Game Commission, those hunters want to ensure Pennsylvania’s important deer resource is managed to ensure healthy deer, healthy habitat and hunting opportunity.

Note that the after Christmas small game season is also open until Feb.28.