Coyote, deer flap continues

By Jeff
Mulhollem
Editor

Harrisburg — There have been a number of factors blamed for the
decline of deer numbers in Pennsylvania’s northern tier:
overharvest of does, hard winters, damaged habitat and mature
forests. But increasingly, exasperated hunters are settling on one
culprit – coyotes.

Although there is no proof that coyotes are killing more deer –
or even that the coyote population is expanding in the commonwealth
– angry hunters claim the Pennsylvania Game Commission has no idea
how many coyotes inhabit the state.

“Unbelievably, coyotes are not even part of the deer-management
equation in Pennsylvania, yet anybody who spends much time out
there realizes just how much of an impact these predators are
having on our deer herd,” said Greg Levengood, chairman of the
board of the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania. “In many areas of
the state we could probably eliminate doe hunting and the coyotes
and bears would keep the deer herd in check.”

Not so, says Cal DuBrock, chief of the Game Commission’s bureau
of wildlife management. He claims that the agency’s deer-management
program does take into account predation, and he is well aware that
coyotes kill fawns. “We are not insensitive to it,” he said. “The
bigger question I have is – if it turns out to be true that coyote
predation is limiting the size of the deer herd – what more could
we and should we do to kill coyotes in the state. We already allow
hunters to pursue coyotes virtually 24/7.”

But DuBrock doesn’t think coyote predation or numbers are
sharply higher in the last few years. He notes that there are
clearly more coyotes than there were 20 years ago – the hunter
harvest went from just 1,810 in 1990 to 11,444 in 2002, the last
year that Game Take Survey numbers are available. But that number
is lower than the 1998 and 2001 coyote harvests.

Sportsmen such as Mike Armstrong, of Perkasi, aren’t buying it.
He believes coyotes are cutting Pennsylvania’s deer herd, and
predicts the next animal to start dwindling in numbers because of
the canine’s predation will be wild turkeys.

“Most Outdoor News readers are probably also NRA members, so
they likely read the latest issue of Hunter or Rifleman concerning
coyote predation,” he wrote in a letter to the editor. “They know
where the deer have gone. The coyote has no natural enemy here in
the East, and hunting/trapping has dropped off with the decline in
fur prices. Coyotes will continue to expand without something being
done to curtail their numbers, such as a bounty.”

DuBrock explained that he will be among the first to know if
predation is increasing on Pennsylvania deer. “If predation is
increasing, we should see it show up in the age ratio of deer in
the harvest,” he said. “We know that the youngest deer are
susceptible to predation, so we would expect to see fewer fawns in
the antlerless harvest.”

According to DuBrock, Pennsylvania’s antlerless harvest has been
made up of 40 to 45 percent fawns for years. That has not changed.
“We don’t know yet if the fawn component is typical in the 2005
harvest,” he said. “It’s just too early to say.”

The Game Commission checks between 30,000 and 40,000 harvested
deer each year, DuBrock pointed out. “We send out 32 two- to
four-person teams across the state,” he said. “We check butcher
shops and hunting camps – we check every deer we can get our hands
on. The assumption is that it is a representative sample of the
harvest.”

Game Commission teams check deer after the highest harvest days
of the season: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the first week of
the rifle deer season, Monday and Tuesday of the second week, and
the Monday and Tuesday after the season. “We collect a lot of
information about harvested deer,” DuBrock said.

Still, Lance Walls, of Cochranville, contends that deer
predation by coyotes is too significant to be ignored. “I have
witnessed coyotes killing a deer,” he said. “It is at the same time
both beautiful and revolting. It is nature at its extreme, but
nonetheless it’s one extreme that now exists in Pennsylvania,
particularly in the spring and winter. These animals do kill
deer.

“The reason that I bring this issue to light is that the hunters
seem to be cognizant of the fact that predators are killing deer,
but Game Commission officials appear to neglect this factor in
their deer equation,” Walls added. “They better start! Deer in 2005
no longer occupy the same spot in the food chain here as they did
in 1965.”

Results of a fawn-mortality study done two years ago by Penn
State researchers showed that predation by bears and especially
coyotes was much greater in the wide open, mature forest of the
Quehanna area of Clearfield County than in the fertile agricultural
surroundings of Penns Valley in Centre County.

Could a large population of coyotes in the big woods counties of
the northcentral region be wiping out young deer and accounting for
the whitetail scarcity hunters have reported the last two years.
“It’s possible, but we don’t have our finger on that,” DuBrock
said. “We don’t have any index on coyote populations other than our
Game Take surveys. Does coyote predation occur? Yes. Is it
substantial? It doesn’t seem to be. Is it having an overwhelming
impact on the deer herd? Probably not.

“But if you look at the harvest in the northcentral region where
people are saying there are fewer deer, the harvests are not really
declining much,” DuBrock added. “There are fewer deer, but
obviously people can’t kill deer where there aren’t any.”

Ted Onufrak, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of
Sportsmen’s Clubs, has no doubt that coyotes are killing deer. He’s
just not sure anything can be done. “Coyotes are going to adjust to
the habitat and the prey,” he said. “If it turns out that there
aren’t that many deer left, then the coyote population will drop. I
have never heard too many of our guys complain about coyote
numbers. I think they realize that there is only so much we can
do.”

Chris Rosenberry, deer section leader for the Game Commission,
noted that there is little evidence to support hunters’ claims that
coyotes routinely take adult deer. “In the three years of the buck
study we recently completed, we documented just three predator
kills of bucks from 7 months of age to 21/2 years and older in
wildlife management units 2D or 4D,” he said. “These three kills
represent less than 2 percent of all documented mortalities.”

Information on the Web site of the West Virginia Department of
Natural Resources seems to support Rosenberry’s contention.
“Predator-prey relationships between the white-tailed deer and the
coyote have been extensively studied,” it states. “Although the
coyote takes healthy adult deer during the winter, winter-killed
and wounded deer as well as carcasses and offal from hunting season
probably make up the bulk of the winter diet.”

Rosenberry offered this assessment of how the commission’s deer
section considers the coyote impact: “The effect of coyote
predation is not lost in our deer management. The Game Commission
has documented and reported predation on fawns and older deer. The
agency currently is studying survival of female deer in wildlife
management units 2G and 4B where one of the objectives is to
estimate survival rates and identify mortality causes on female
deer from 7 months of age and older.”

If coyote predation turns out to be a significant mortality
factor, he promised, it will be honestly reported and factored into
deer population monitoring as a mortality factor affecting
“nonhunting survival.”

“The Game Commission is not ignoring predation,” Rosenberry
added. “Rather we continue to conduct field studies that have and
will document the effects of predators on deer survival. It is upon
these data that deer-management recommendations will be based.

“We agree that having better estimates of natural mortality and
nonhunting season survival is important to effectively monitor deer
populations,” he said. “This is why estimating natural mortality is
an objective of the current doe study in wildlife management areas
2G and 4B. If coyotes are a significant predator on yearlings and
adults, we should see this in our study animals over the course of
the study.”

It is unlikely that coyotes are controlling deer numbers in
Pennsylvania, according to Gary San Julian, professor of wildlife
resources in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
“Ecology tells us that prey control predator numbers; predators
don’t control prey numbers,” he said.

Most wildlife experts agree that coyotes showed up in
Pennsylvania in the early 1930s, but some say they were here all
along. The eastern coyote is bigger than its western counterpart,
and San Julian wonders if the size difference comes from habitat
and environmental factors.

Some scientists speculate that coyotes bred with timber wolves
and it is the larger progeny of these crossbreeds that populate
Pennsylvania. Recent DNA testing strongly suggests that eastern
coyotes resulted from a hybridization of Midwestern coyotes and
gray wolves. “That would explain the size and the pelt coloration
differences between eastern and western animals,” San Julian said.
“Some eastern coyote behaviors, such as social hierarchy, also
parallel that of the gray wolf.

“Eastern coyotes are utilizing a niche similar to the one wolves
once filled,” said San Julian, who noted that coyotes eat more
small mammals than do wolves, which prefer larger prey.

Mostly nocturnal, coyotes will hunt during the day if not
threatened by people. They are omnivorous and will eat fruits,
grasses and vegetables, along with meat. This ability to vary their
diet has made coyotes so adaptable and able to survive in so many
places.

San Julian offers the following interesting facts about
coyotes:

  • Coyotes mate for life. From January to March is the breeding
    period. Most do not breed until they are 2 years old.
  • Coyotes usually don’t hunt in packs the way wolves do. They are
    solitary hunters.
  • The word “coyote” comes from the Aztec word “coyotl,” which
    means “barking dog.”
  • Coyotes can have as many as 10 pups, with six being average in
    Pennsylvania. Efforts in the West to exterminate coyotes failed in
    part because the animals have bigger litters when their population
    is pressured.
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