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Would coyote bounties really help restore Pa. deer numbers?

Posted on January 9, 2014

Ron SteffeThere is no denying that coyote populations have greatly expanded and increased over the past 30 years. An animal that was at one time rare  in the eastern half of the United States now seems to be everywhere.

Here in Pennsylvania, disgruntled deer hunters are angry about high coyote numbers and have persuaded politicians to propose a bounty plan they believe will lower the cunning canine predator’s abundance.

Will that help the deer herd? A recent study in another state addressed that question and examined the results of intense coyote removal in a selected area.

South Carolina has experienced a 30 percent drop in its deer population. Because of that, a 300-square-mile site in western South Carolina’s Savannah River area was chosen as a test for the influence of coyotes on deer populations. The first year, 60 fawns were radio-collared, and 44 failed to reach adulthood. All but one of the deaths were attributed to bobcat and coyote predation, but coyotes led the way by killing 36 of the 44.

Trappers were hired to trap and kill every coyote they could, right up to the fawning season. Trapping is the best method to remove coyotes because traps work 24/7.

Anyway, the following year the fawn survival rate doubled after 169 coyotes were trapped. However, the second year of the study, fawn mortality dropped to the pre-trapping level even though 160 coyotes were trapped. And although trapping continued, the fawn survival rate stayed low.

Researchers were left scratching their heads.

They eventually concluded that coyotes respond to heavy pressure and deaths of their own kind by producing larger litters. Plus coyotes migrate into areas with low numbers, keeping the predator population steady no matter what humans do.

From my perspective I believe in allowing the bounty system to be instituted statewide, at least temporarily for experimental purposes. Choosing a small test area would invite cheating of trappers and hunters bringing coyotes killed outside the test area into the test area to collect the bounties, and realistically there is no way for the Game Commission to distinguish where coyotes were harvested.

Keep in mind also, the South Carolina study shows that in the end, coyotes affect deer numbers even under intense trapping, and because of those results, some researchers feel a better approach to help fawn survival would be to improve habitat for better hiding places, plus the reduction of doe harvest. “More does will produce more fawns” is that line of reasoning.

Ultimately, I'm not certain how this explosion in coyote numbers will end in regard to whitetail deer numbers. I hope the high coyote population will decrease, perhaps because of lower deer numbers. Nature tends to strike a balance between predator and prey populations.

At this point, the outcome remains a mystery. But deer hunters, myself included, may not be happy about the balance between the two species that is eventually reached.