For many of us, even when it’s deer season it’s always predator season. So we gladly thump every coyote that walks past our deer stand in the name of predator control.
Why not? Science has shown that coyotes take a heavy toll on whitetail fawns. At least one study found that coyotes can eat as many as 75 percent of the fawns born in a single spring and deer populations are declining in some parts of the country, possibly as a result of an increase in coyote numbers.
It’s only fitting that we do our part to maintain a healthy deer herd. But are we actually helping? Does shooting the random coyote during deer or elk or duck season have much of an impact on next year’s fawn or rabbit or quail crop? There’s no question a dead coyote won’t eat any more fawns or small game. And a single coyote can eat a lot of fawns. But the predator-prey equation is much more complicated than that.
The truth is, what you do in the deer woods in December will have little impact on coyote numbers or fawn predation next spring. In fact, shooting the occasional coyote just might do more harm than good, says Mississippi State University assistant professor Dr. Marcus Lashley.
“A number of studies have shown that the alpha female is very good at defending her territory and keeping other coyotes away,” Lashley said. “If you kill her, others will move in and fight over the territory. You may actually end up with more coyotes than you had to begin with.”
Shooting one or two may not help, but what if every deer hunter on the landscape was plugging every coyote he saw? That still won’t do much, Lashley said. He points to a ground-breaking study that took place on a large government facility in South Carolina. It lasted three years and examined the impact of coyote removal on fawn survival. Paid, professional trappers caught hundreds of coyotes over the course of the study. Fawn survival increased the first year, but fell to about the same level prior to the trapping efforts and before rising somewhat the third year. A number of other studies showed similar results: Killing coyotes may or may not improve whitetail fawn survival.
“The average hunter or recreational trapper might get a few per season or even several right before fawning season, but coyotes are extremely mobile and very good at filling a vacuum. If you catch one or a dozen on your land, others will just move in and take their place,” says Lashley, who participated in at least a half-dozen coyote-related research projects. “A coyote in one of my studies moved hundreds of miles in a month. Other studies have shown similar things.”
Besides, coyotes are very skilled at staying unseen, especially in the east where thick woods and dense undergrowth provide excellent cover. You may see a few every deer season, but you are likely just seeing a small fraction of what’s out there.
Shooting all you see still won’t put a dent in their numbers, at least not over the long-term. Coyotes also have an innate ability to compensate for lower populations by producing larger litters. Lashley says other furbearers can do the same thing. Shoot a bunch this year and they’ll just have more babies in the spring. That means you’ll have just as many or even more in the coming seasons.
What to do, and When
If you are intent on knocking down coyote numbers to boost deer or small game numbers on your land, forget plugging the random predator during deer season and focus on the fawning season. Removing coyotes from the landscape in April or May means there is less time for other coyotes to move in. Most coyote control efforts in sheep country, for instance, take place right before or during the lambing season, for good reason. That’s when it helps reduce livestock loss the most.
Just be prepared to put lots of effort into it. In order to have any impact on coyote numbers, you’ll need to kill upwards of 70 percent of the population. That’s a lot. Few of us have any idea how many coyotes are out there, but the good news is that populations are probably not as high as you think. Whether there is one coyote per square mile or 10, you’ll still need to invest lots of effort into it if you expect the slightest benefit. And you still might not see any noticeable results.
A study in Georgia examined fawn survival and coyote populations in conjunction with coyote removal on two wildlife management areas. The first year, trappers removed an estimated 81 percent of the coyotes from one wildlife management area and a similar number on the other. Fawn survival went up on one area but did not improve on the other. The study’s authors concluded, “coyote control may not achieve management objectives in some areas.”
If you still insist on undertaking some method of control, focus on trapping. Hunting is fun and a skilled hunter can rack up some impressive numbers, but it can’t produce the numbers of coyotes that a trap line can. Traps work 24 hours a day and a good trapper can set dozens in a day. Even the best hunter can’t cover as much territory as a good trapper. There is a reason no scientific study has used hunters instead of trappers.
Catching a coyote in a trap may be difficult though, even for experienced trappers. It’s going to be even tougher if you’ve never set a trap before. Check with your state trapper’s association for demonstrations or even a local trapper who might be willing to show you some basic skills. The worst thing you can do is educate a coyote. That just makes them more difficult to catch the next time they approach a trap.
Make sure it is legal to trap or hunt outside of established hunting and trapping seasons. Coyotes are not protected in most states so they can be killed all year, but other furbearers have established closed seasons. You can’t legally shoot raccoons, bobcats and many other predators in the spring. A number of studies have found that bears also take a high percentage of whitetail fawns.
Once you start working on your coyote population, you can’t stop, either. As the cited studies have shown, coyotes are extremely adept at bouncing back from population reductions. In order to maintain lower numbers, you’ll need to trap virtually all year and for years to come.
Get used to them
The bottom line? Few of us have the skills, time or resources to put enough pressure on predators to make a difference. On top of that, there is little evidence that you can shoot or trap your way out of a predator problem in the first place. Coyotes are highly-adaptable animals that have survived decades of persecution and control efforts by some very skilled hunters and trappers. Even the federal government has attempted to keep coyotes in check with little success.
“Hunt them because they are fun to hunt and because you can make a few dollars on their pelts,” Lashley said. “Don’t assume you can control them by shooting them through recreational hunting and don’t think you will see more deer or small game after you kill a couple of coyotes. If that’s your goal, focus on improving the habitat.”
He says studies have found that fawn survival is higher when they have adequate cover that makes finding them more difficult. Overgrown fields, regenerated clearcuts and other dense cover not only help hide fawns, they grow lots of other birds and small mammals that coyotes eat.
“The more food a coyote has, the more likely it will eat something else besides a fawn,” adds Lashley. “Creating good habitat also means you are making your land more attractive to deer and other wildlife, so you can actually improve deer numbers by improving the habitat.”
Of course, the more food there is, the more likely you are to attract coyotes. The only good news is that just means you’ll have more to hunt.