For one reason or another the predators in an ecosystem always take all the heat from conservationists and whitetail deer and wild turkey managers. Maybe it's because they are carnivores or that they are just low hanging fruit. But whether it is reintroductions or just trying to figure out what is affecting deer and turkey population declines, they often get most of the bad publicity. Now don’t get me wrong, the predators in an ecosystem have a dramatic impact on the surrounding wildlife and need to be managed correctly, but is it always the right answer?
Many whitetail and turkey biologists as well as hunters have been asking this question about the coyotes that share habitat with these animals. My opinion on this subject is still fairly open minded, but it seems almost every time a coyote walks under my treestand I nock an arrow. I just can’t seem to trust them. Recently, however, many biologists and researchers that understand this relationship better than I do, have given us whitetail and turkey hunter’s a reason to pause and take a second look at the predator management on our property. The rest of this article seeks to outline some of the new understandings about predator management and what hunters can do to effectively manage the coyotes on their properties.
ARE COYOTES A PROBLEM FOR DEER AND TURKEYS?
The first thing a land manger needs to do is find out whether or not predators are actually a problem on their property. Just seeing coyotes on your property doesn’t mean that they are a problem. As whitetail and turkey managers we need to determine if the predation from coyotes is hurting our deer herds and turkey flocks. There are two ecological definitions that can help explain this, compensatory and additive. Compensatory predation is when the predation doesn’t affect the overall survival rate of the species and additive predation is when the predation decreases the survival rate of the species. With compensatory predation it is assumed that the predation takes the place of another factor that may have caused the death of an animal, like disease, hunting, or poor nutrition. Compensatory predation will not greatly affect the number of species in a population and the population should remain fairly steady. Additive predation, however, will cause the number or species in the population to decrease.
The main thing you can do to determine if predation by coyotes on your property is compensatory or additive is to perform a trail camera survey. This allows you to get accurate information about the deer on your property and get a fairly good idea of the health and abundance of does on your property. It also allows you to gauge the number of coyotes because they are also going to show up in some of those trail camera pictures. If you follow through with the trail camera survey and see that the deer on your property are healthy and have the appropriate buck to doe ratio you may not need to immediately consider predator management because having healthy herds allows you take a few losses. It goes without being said that these surveys should be done every year and monitored closely so that if predators become a problem, management can start right away. Building off the trail camera survey is the fact that predator management needs to be looked at individually. Your friend a couple counties over may be having a problem, but it doesn’t mean you do. That is why the trail camera survey’s can be so helpful. If you see a low population of deer you know that every fawn counts, but if you see a high population it may not be quite as big an issue.
The final thing to remember is that there are numerous other factors that could be causing a decline in your deer herd. Things like disease, food, and weather can all affect the deer population from year to year.
WHAT IF YOU DO HAVE A COYOTE PROBLEM?
If you have determined that predation by coyotes is a problem on your property then you have several options. They include things like cover, nutrition, a scientific approach, hunting, and providing alternative food sources. For me this is where the fun begins because the strategy, planning, and offseason work can be a deal breaker when it comes to managing coyotes.
The first thing you should think about is cover. Coyotes are opportunists and they hunt by scent. So if they need to get fairly close to fawns to find them and if they stumble upon one they will take it. So providing adequate cover will make it harder for them. To provide the proper cover a lot of off season work is going to be needed. Depending on how many does are using your property for fawning, you may need to provide a lot of fawning cover. The good thing though, is that many aspects of fawning cover are also beneficial during different times of the year. Obviously, does will prefer areas that have thick cover to hide their fawns in and areas that are separate from other does. A way to maximize your cover is to perform some hinge cutting. This creates denser habitat that does prefer for fawning and during the rest of the year. Although it may not be to appealing, adding food plots of grasses instead of clovers or beans is also an option to improve cover. You can either use a few food plots you have to spare or you can take some of the locations on your property that don’t have good winds for hunting or good entry and exit routes and make those into a few grass plots. As far as the types of grasses go, the warm season grasses in your area will work, as well as, any type of tall grass species or native grasses. Creating early successional habitat will also provide good cover. Another, sometimes overlooked, aspect of cover is that it provides good nutrition for does. The added cover can provide nutrition throughout the year and adequate thermal cover to help does make it through the winter in good condition. It is important that does go into spring healthy, which will make fawning success better.
THE ECOLOGICAL APPROACH TO COYOTE MANAGEMENT
You can also look at coyote management from a scientific and ecological approach. Having a proper doe harvest each year and maintaining a good buck to doe ratio will help ensure that the natural ecological processes work in your favor. Breeding takes place relatively the same time each year and this means that fawns will all drop in the spring at about the same time as well. This isn’t just pure coincidence, but an ecological strategy that deer use to help ensure the success of their species. It is known as the saturation principle. There is such a large increase in the population of the deer herd that coyotes can’t respond quick enough. For example, if all of a sudden you got a years worth of candy bars that you had to eat in two weeks, you wouldn’t be able to eat them all. But if you had the whole your to eat them you could more effectively accomplish the goal. The same thing occurs with the coyote population. There are so many fawns all of a sudden released into the environment that the coyotes simply don’t have enough time to get to all of them. The natural process for the coyotes would be to increase their population, but biologically they can’t respond quick enough to take advantage of the increased food source. So it is important that when we manage whitetails we do what ever we can to help nature, simply, just do its thing.
IS COYOTE HUNTING WORTH IT
The approach many hunters use to control predators is hunting them. But is this an effective strategy? A lot of research has been done on this and most of it suggests it’s not. Coyotes are territorial, thus this means that certain coyotes that use your property will be dominant while others will just be passing through. Biologist refer to this as residents and transients. Resident coyotes will occupy a much smaller range and will search harder for fawns because they won’t travel long distances outside their territory to find food. Transients will be almost the exact opposite of that and will travel continuously through a much larger range and search less (being more opportunistic). So if you could somehow target the residents that search harder for fawns you might be able to manage coyotes successfully, but this is almost impossible to do. The main reason hunting coyotes may not be a successful management strategy lies within the dynamics of the resident and transient relationship. Most transient coyotes are the population founders and territory starters. So if something removes a resident coyote from a territory a transient will most likely take its place fairly quickly. So if you use hunting as a way to remove coyotes you might just be opening the door for more to move in. The random hunting of coyotes basically opens up holes that are quickly filled by transient coyotes. So unless your coyote hunting is fairly constant, you will probably only see temporary results. This is not to say that you shouldn’t hunt coyotes. Most whitetail hunters probably do a few times a year. It is a fun hunt and allows for lots of excitement, just know that it is probably not the best method to use to manage coyotes.
THE ALTERNATIVE COYOTE FOOD SOURCE THEORY
This method of predator management is a fairly new concept and at first glance seems like an easy solution to your coyote problem. Just make it easier for them to get other food sources and it should make them less likely to search out fawns, right? Maybe not. There are three outcomes that could occur if you implement this management strategy. The first is that managing for other species and providing alternative food sources like mice, rabbits, snakes, and grassland birds will allow coyotes to prey on other species instead of fawns. Second, is that this strategy will just support and attract more coyotes to your area. The final outcome is that coyotes prefer fawns because of the nutritional value they get versus the time spent searching. In a broad sense they would prefer fawns because they get more bang for their buck. The number of studies regarding this topic still remains fairly small, but the conclusion this far is fairly simple, coyotes are opportunist. It was stated earlier, but coyotes will eat whatever’s easiest and if that’s fawns during the spring time then that is what they will eat. At this point the alternative food source option remains fairly neutral. It may provide some buffering capabilities that can help fawn survival, but it might also have no impact at all.
CONCLUSION TO COYOTE MANAGEMENT FOR DEER
Coyote management remains fairly complicated with many potential solutions. There is no doubt that coyotes take deer fawns and turkeys. They are after all predators, it is kind of what they do. But to what extent this has on deer and turkey on your property is very individually based. The key, I believe, is active management. Most hunters today run trail cameras almost year round. Use those pictures to your advantage. When you are finished creating that awesome list of hit list bucks, take a few moments to look at the health of the deer and turkeys using your property. If you have a coyote problem a couple simple steps like not taking as many does and providing better fawning cover can help you manage the problem. As far as other methods are concerned, hunting should most likely be replaced by trapping coyotes whenever possible and managing for alternative food sources may not have much of an effect. Predators like coyotes are part of the ecosystem and have an important role in it. The most important coyote management tool is to stay active in the management of the whitetails and turkets on your property. If you do this you should be able to have happy and healthy deer and turkey for years to come.