It’s no secret that coyotes eat venison, but do they hurt deer populations while satisfying their cravings?
Studies in Northern regions show that rodents and wild fruits are common summer coyote foods. But as winter approaches and food gets scarcer, coyotes shift more to snowshoe hares and red squirrels. And when these run out, they shift to deer. In some places, deer make consist of up to 80 percent of the coyote’s winter diet.
This is a direct result of a shortage of smaller prey. In Maine, for example, hunters commonly see—from tracks in the snow—that coyotes chase snowshoe hares. Then, when hare populations start to thin, usually in late December, we start seeing more coyote tracks following deer tracks. They must, because deer are the most abundant remaining food source.
Coyotes are normally territorial, and the size of an average winter family group is four adults. That many coyotes can’t kill that many deer, even in a deer wintering yard. But when the only available food is concentrated in one small area, such as a deer yard, coyote territoriality goes out the window. Some areas have coyote populations in excess of 35 coyotes per 100 square miles, and in severe winters they often all end up in a single deer wintering yard.
That many coyotes can hammer a deer yard, and a big percentage of the deer killed are healthy, pregnant does.
For years the conventional wisdom was that predators take only the very young, the sick and the old. Research shows clearly that this doesn’t apply to coyotes in deep snow conditions.
Gary Lavigne, a retired whitetail biologist, said, “In 1978, I started a study where we determined the cause of death of deer found in the wintertime, and collected leg bones. Between 1978 and 1989, we examined 760 coyote kills. We found that coyote-killed fawns and deer older than 10 years were in excess of their proportion in the population. So the coyotes were selective—to a degree. But that was only a small percentage of the total kills. The bulk of them were deer that you’d think would not be vulnerable to predation; yearlings to 8-year-old bucks and does. In the deep snow typical of northern Maine winters, coyotes were able to kill non-selectively. This was just like having another either-sex deer hunting season going on from December to March. Deer of either sex and of all ages were represented in coyote kills.
“When we looked at the fat content of the bones, which gives you an index of whether they were starving or not, we found that less than 30 percent of the deer were severely malnourished, and at least 40 percent had so much fat you would predict they’d get through the winter and never have a starvation problem. So coyotes will kill deer in very good condition.
“By 1982 or 1983 we got the message, and that’s when Maine’s Department of Inland and Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) started reducing doe harvest to try to compensate for the additional losses coyotes were imposing on the herd.”
It was also when MDIFW initiated a predator control program, to reduce predation on deer in winter, when they’re most vulnerable.
Did Maine’s coyote control program work? Let’s look at just one location, the West Grand Lake/Grand Lake Stream area of eastern Maine.This is typical boreal wilderness, with acidic soil, a lot of lakes, streams, and bogs, and predominately conifer forest. The deer population isn’t high, but it produces some very good bucks.
The Pine Tree Store in the town of Grand Lake Stream is the only game tagging station for many miles, and its deer tagging records are a fairly accurate indication of the health of the local deer herd. Those records tell a dramatic story of the coyote’s impact on deer.
The area was famed for its big bucks, and for many years the store tagged 75 or 80 deer a year—bucks and does combined. The lodges were full of deer hunters, the guides were busy, and the store owner made 30 percent of his annual income during the 1-month deer season in November. Local guide and trapper Dave Tobey had a camp on Fourth Machias Lake that housed eight hunters at a time. The camp was always full, and his hunter success rate was 70 percent.
In the winter of 1976 Tobey found a killed deer on the ice of a lake, with the first coyote tracks he’d seen in the area around it. During the next few years, coyotes multiplied rapidly, and Tobey and others found increasingly more deer kills. One winter he and three friends found 68 separate kills on the ice and in the yards. Deer are almost helpless on ice because their hooves can’t find good purchase, and in lower snow depth conditions, a favorite coyote winter hunting tactic is to chase deer out onto the frozen surface of lakes and rivers where they can easily kill them. The occasional ice storms that cover the ground in the woods with ice also make deer very vulnerable.
By the early ‘80s the deer population in Tobey’s area had crashed. He had to close the camp on Fourth Machias, and the number of deer tagged at the Pine Tree Store dropped to single digits. Hunters quickly stopped coming.
The same thing was happening in similar terrain all around northern and eastern Maine. In 1983, MDIFW started its formal ADC program, with snaring coyotes in winter as its main component.
At first the impact was slight because trappers could only set 30 snares. With these restrictions Tobey was only catching about a dozen coyotes a year. The deer tagged at the Pine Tree Store remained abysmally low.
In 1989 MDIFW loosened snaring restrictions somewhat, and Tobey’s coyote catch jumped to about 20 annually. In 1990, only four deer were tagged at the Pine Tree Store, but as Tobey and several other trappers continued to annually take about 20 coyotes each, the deer kill slowly increased. In 1996, 20 bucks were tagged. That number dropped to 14 in 1997, then rose slightly to 17 in ’1998.
In 1998, MDIFW loosened snaring restrictions much more, and Tobey and others were able to hit the coyotes hard. That winter Tobey took 30, and over 100 coyotes in all were removed from the area.
In 1999, 30 deer were tagged at the store.
Tobey and company pounded the coyotes again that winter, and in November 2000, 20 deer were tagged.
The winter of 2000-2001 was ferocious, the seventh worse on record for the eastern United States and Canada. From December into April, storm after storm dumped a total of over 20 feet of snow and ice on the area. Deer died by tens of thousands across the East, and only 12 were tagged at the store in 2001.
That winter Tobey snared 49 coyotes, and two other local trappers took about 20 each. And the deer bounced back. The Pine Tree Store tagged 37 bucks in 2002.
That winter, coyotes were hard to find. Contrary to the myth that coyote numbers will always rebound to compensate for control losses, intensive control in the Grand Lake Stream area had reduced coyotes considerably.
Then in 2003, due to political pressure from anti-hunting organizations, MDIFW stopped the snaring program.
Coyote numbers rose quickly, and the deer kill fell just as fast.
In 2004, only 13 deer were tagged at the Pine Tree Store. That fell to 11 in 2005, to 10 in 2006, then up to 14 in 2007. And once again there were coyotes everywhere.
The pattern is clear: Consistent coyote control had raised the deer kill in this small area from less than 10 to an average of 21 annually from 1996 to 2002; stopping control dropped the average to 12 deer annually from 2003 to 2007. That’s almost a 50 percent drop.
Experiences and studies continent-wide consistently prove that focused, concerted, continuing coyote control definitely does reduce their numbers, keeps them low, and has a measurable positive effect on game and livestock populations.
We haven’t even touched on fawn predation, which is significant. Removing mature, survivor coyotes in winter reduces the number of coyote litters the next spring, which helps fawn survival considerably.
Snaring by experienced trappers is an effective tool for focused coyote control, but there are other methods hunters can use. The deer kill had risen all over eastern Maine during the snaring program. When the state cancelled snaring in 2003, local sportsmen, in particular the Washington County Conservation Association, took up the slack. Having seen that control works, they developed very effective hunting methods such as shooting over bait and hunting with hounds. Individual hunters are now taking 30 or more coyotes annually, and coyotes are actually getting hard to find in many areas. The deer kill continues to rise everywhere hunters have kept constant pressure on coyotes.
Will coyote control help the deer in your hunting area? That depends on your climate, and other available food sources. If coyotes are forced to depend heavily on deer in winter, and if snow and ice conditions make deer vulnerable, then every coyote you kill, regardless of the time of year, helps.