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Study says coyotes eat lots of venison. But are they killing lots of deer?

Posted on February 15, 2013

Tom VeneskyThe 58 coyotes that were taken during last weekend’s Northeast Regional Coyote Hunt was the highest total in the event’s 13-year history.

A record number of 841 hunters participated in the event, which is conducted by District 9 of the Pennsylvania Trapper’s Association. But the hunt yielded far more than records, it provided valuable insight into Pennsylvania’s largest canine predator.

For starters, our coyotes are big. The total weight of all 58 coyotes taken in the hunt – which includes eight northeastern Pennsylvania counties, was 2,070 pounds.

Just over a ton.

The heaviest weighed 46.95 pounds and was taken in Susquehanna County. The smallest weighed just over 20 pounds and the average weight was 35.7 pounds.

Biologists say that the Eastern coyotes that inhabit this part of the country are bigger then their western counterparts, and there’s a reason why.

Research has shown that the coyotes living here actually migrated here in the 1940’s through Ontario, where they came into contact and bred with Great Lakes wolves.

That made them bigger, faster and stronger.

It also gave them a healthy appetite.

There’s been much debate over a coyote’s diet. Some believe the large canines feast on deer and small game, while others say they don’t eat enough to impact those populations, instead consuming small rodents.

And this is where hunts – such as the one held recently, give us an answer. According to research on stomach samples conducted by Shippensburg University, coyotes do indeed eat deer more than anything else. Deer was the most prevalent food item – occurring in 62 percent of the 98 coyote stomachs that were sampled.

But don’t jump to conclusions just yet.

Because the samples were taken from coyote hunts and trappers, it represents a winter diet – a time of year when deer are more vulnerable to predation.

Still, the samples don’t necessarily indicate that coyotes are killing deer, just eating them. Because they are also scavengers, it’s likely that coyotes are consuming road-killed deer, unrecovered deer remaining from the recent hunting seasons or even gut piles.

Face it, there’s a lot of dead deer laying along the roadsides and in the woods during the winter months.

It would take a considerable amount of energy for a coyote to kill a deer, especially when there is no snow on the ground. I’m sure it does happen, however it makes sense that a coyote would rather consume an animal that has already been killed rather then expend the valuable energy doing the job itself.

Do coyotes have a significant impact on the deer herd? The Shippensburg study seems to indicate that may be the case, but it also leaves more questions. Personally, I feel that a good portion of the coyote’s winter diet comes from dead deer. I’ve seen too many places that held plenty of deer and coyote signs to assume that the canines are going to wipe out the deer herd.

But my opinion could change, and that’s why I’ll continue to read the valuable research that is yielded by coyote hunts across the state.

On an interesting note, the second most-prevalent food item in coyote stomachs was vegetation. That may also explain why deer comprise a large portion of the coyote’s winter diet – an absence of vegetation.

Rabbits, shrews, turkeys, vole, red foxes and mice rounded out the rest of the prey species, proving that our coyotes aren’t just big, but they have pretty diverse taste buds as well.

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