Predators and Fawns: What’s the Impact in Georgia?

Some of the top whitetail researchers are beginning to question whether predators, primarily coyotes, are having a greater impact than previously thought.

A 3,000-acre tract in Murray County, almost in the shadows of the rugged Cohutta Wilderness, intensively managed for deer for the past seven years. Lush food plots, supplemental feed, minerals, and selective harvest should have caused what has traditionally been a low deer population to literally explode.

Seven years on 3,000 acres, where not a single doe has been killed, not one, and the deer population is still so low that more often than not, hunters don’t see a deer from the stand. They’ve killed some huge bucks that now dot the Murray County rankings, but with more than enough to eat and no doe harvest, why isn’t the deer population expanding?

That’s what Seth Davis of Chatsworth wanted to know about the land he owns and leases in Murray County.

“We’ve been heavily managing the place. You name it, and we do it. There is plenty, plenty for the deer to eat, but the populations weren’t growing,” Seth said.

Finally, he called Kent Kammermeyer, a recently retired WRD biologist and the guru of north Georgia whitetails and food plots. “He came out and estimated our population at 15 deer per square mile. He estimated I should have no trouble sustaining 30,” Seth said.

Kent’s diagnosis: “One of the few conclusions I could come to after looking at the whole place was that they are not getting much fawn recruitment at all. One thing I did in their management plan was recommend they hire a trapper and get in there and start doing some predator control,” Kent said.

Now hold on — predators aren’t a limiting factor on deer populations, not in Georgia. At least that’s what we’ve always been told. There are no studies from this region on the effects of predators on fawn mortality, so for now the only scientific look at this issue comes from other states.

A UGA study at Kiawah Island, S.C. showed that not only were bobcats a major predator of whitetail fawns, but that they were actually keeping the deer population in check. From 2002 to 2003, the UGA study on Kiawah Island monitored 63 fawns. A whopping 81 percent of the fawns died, and bobcats killed half of them. The next-highest cause of fawn mortality at Kiawah Island was vehicles, which killed seven of the 63 fawns (11 percent).

A Pennsylvania Game Commission study showed that predators were killing 23 percent of fawns. Of 218 fawns that were radio-collared, 49 were killed by predators, the leading source of mortality. Of those 49, they identified the predator involved in 37. Coyotes were responsible for 18; bears, 16; and bobcats three.

The researchers were surprised about how many fawns fell prey to bears. “It is widely known that the state’s large population of coyotes prey on fawns, but it now looks like bears kill as many, possibly more,” said one of the Pennsylvania researchers.

Because deer numbers are stable and have been growing in Pennsylvania, the study clearly stated that predation is not impacting the herd significantly. That’s not the case in Texas and Oklahoma, were fawn-mortality studies showed that coyotes were taking up to 80 percent of the fawns.

Georgia’s habitat and deer-herd dynamics can be vastly different from Pennsylvania and Kiawah Island. Heck, Georgia’s habitat and deer-herd dynamics can be vastly different from one county to the next. But those studies clearly show that coyotes, bears and bobcats kill and eat whitetail fawns, and in some cases these predators can be a limiting factor on whitetail populations.

Could this also be true on certain tracts of land in Georgia?

Consider the Murray County tract, where Seth Davis hired a trapper who worked for three weeks and caught 30 coyotes and six bobcats.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Kent said. “I’ve never heard of such a coyote density. And that’s just what he caught. If he was real good, he might have caught half of them, but that would be a stretch. Can you imagine that kind of coyote density on 3,000 acres?

“I’m one of these guys who used to just pooh-pooh the coyotes as far as deer-fawn predators. My line of thinking was that there was not enough of a coyote density out there to really do a lot of damage. But, after this… whoa. There could be, in spots at least,” Kent said.

“I think that for the most part diseases control coyote populations. But if they get a few years with low disease losses and build up to that kind of a density, man, as smart as they are and their learning ability, I guarantee you they are learning to hunt for fawns when they’re dropping in June and July up there (on Seth’s Murray County land). When you add that to bobcats and bears, there’s probably not a lot of recruitment. Apparently, the fawns are getting axed by these predators.”

Kent is beginning to consider the possibility that coyotes are worse of a deer-fawn predator in the East than anybody thought.

“Everybody knows they are in Texas. Everybody’s thinking was that in the East we have plenty of fawn cover, plenty of other things for coyotes to eat, that they’re not targeting fawns. But maybe the scientific community is a little misinformed on that, or maybe we just made some incorrect assumptions.”

Another top whitetail expert who is beginning to consider the impact of fawn predation by coyotes is Dr. Karl V. Miller of the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia.

“My gut feeling is I think we’re seeing pretty significant coyote predation in some areas that’s keeping or driving deer herds down a little bit. I’ve seen lactation rates where I’m hunting go from almost 100 percent down to 60 or 70 percent. This means the does probably lost their fawn — or both fawns — early.

“Now that’s just anecdotal,” Karl added.

Because the proper research hasn’t been done in this region, Karl says he can’t put a fence around the significance of coyote predation on deer, but UGA researchers are currently involved in two studies on coyotes and their impacts on deer.

One study over the next two years will go into a large area and look at deer-recruitment rates through the summer and fall. Then that winter they will go in and eliminate as many coyotes as possible, then look at the response of the deer.

Another research project that will conclude later this summer has 28 coyotes carrying radio-tracking collars.

“We’re also collecting scat, and we’re going to try get cameras up over coyote dens and see how many fawns are being brought to them,” Karl said.

Someone with plenty of first-hand knowledge of the impacts of coyotes and bears on deer is wildlife photographer Tommy Kirkland, who spends several days a week in the woods and fields of Cades Cove in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in Tennessee.

“There’s no doubt predators have some degree of impact. It’s too hard to say just what the impact is because there are so many variables — it depends on the habitat, it depends on the deer herd,” Tommy said. “I’m out there observing these deer and coyotes 100 days a year. The coyote problem is progressively getting worse where I photograph. ”

On the national park where hunting is not allowed, the coyotes and bears, biologically speaking, are probably doing the deer herd a favor by taking fawns. But an aspect that Tommy sees every day, an aspect of coyotes rarely considered, is the impact coyotes have on all deer, even mature bucks, simply by their presence in an area.

“It’s a carousel of the coyotes chasing the deer. Some of them branch off and one coyote chases a deer here and another there,” Tommy said. “I have seen coyotes working in twos and threes. The deer usually outrun them, but the coyotes put tremendous stress on the deer. They hinder your herd from comfortably feeding.”

In most circumstances, a healthy, adult deer is not likely to fall prey to coyotes, but there could be another downside to coyotes for hunters.
“A hunter might be asking, ‘Why am I not seeing my deer?’ It could be that the coyotes just worked that area, or they have the deer so on edge that they become so wary that they’re hard to hunt,” he said.

Tommy mentioned one group of deer he’s been following for about five years. He’s noticed that as coyotes moved into the area, the deer changed their feeding habits.

“There’s no doubt that coyotes affect when and where deer feed. One morning two springs ago, that crew of deer started to get nervous. They started flipping out. Over this ridge, there was a dog (coyote). This antlerless buck stood up and flailed a tree limb with his front hooves — aggressively. Then everybody took off, just scattered. I find the herd later, and they’re all bedded down in the high grass. You could see that these deer were in a high state of fear.”

Tommy said that coyotes will have even more of an impact on deer on land that is hunted.

“These big Georgia bucks are not just eluding hunters, they’re also eluding coyotes and bobcats. On hunting land, the deer are more jittery. I’d have to say that coyotes can reduce the visibility of your deer.”

So what does all this coyote and predator talk mean? Coyotes are certainly not going to wipe out a deer herd, so should we even be worrying about them?

Karl said, “I think the biological community is coming to grips with this thing. A lot of people still say that deer predation is not an issue. I think there are a lot of things going on right now that are changing people’s minds, like having a very significant doe harvest in areas where you’ve got a lot of coyote predation. If you drop your doe population too far, coyotes might not let them respond as well as they could. I’m very tentative in saying that, because some people hear that and they won’t want to shoot does, for most that’s a big mistake.”

For much of Georgia, especially in the deer-belt in the upper Piedmont, coyotes are still a relatively new dynamic to the ecosystem, and up to this point, they’ve been largely left out of the deer-management equation.

“I wonder how many coyotes we have in the state in Georgia? Maybe 75,000, 100,000? If each coyote takes one fawn, that’s one-third of hunters’ annual take. That’s pretty significant, if in fact they’re taking that many,” Karl said. “It’s a new component to the system. We have to learn how to manage our herds and deal with it, and now there’s research going on to address this. Within a couple of years we might have a fairly good answer on how significant it is.”

For hunters who have drastically backed off on shooting does and still aren’t seeing deer, the predator factor is something to chew on. The last two deer seasons in Georgia have left many hunters with a widespread perception that things aren’t up to par.

“As much as I don’t want to think about it, this may fit into part of the puzzle the last two years in Georgia,” Kent said. “I’ve been blaming it on acorns and deer movement and other things. But I hunt on a couple of tracts where there’s no way too many does were killed in the last couple of years, yet we had trouble seeing does this past fall and the fall before.

“I just wonder if the population is still down on those properties despite a very conservative doe harvest because predators are keeping them down. I don’t want to think that, but it sure makes you wonder. You hate to jump to that kind of conclusion, but it’s possible that as more of this information comes out that the combination of coyotes and bobcats is worse than we thought,” said Kent.

Georgia’s hunters are lucky to have some of the nation’s best researchers based right here, and their current work is on coyotes — and GON will provide the results.

Every tract of land is different. The dynamics of your deer herd, and the habitat it has to work with, can be vastly different from another tract that is five miles away in the same county. Are coyotes having an impact on your deer? Most likely, they are not. But, some of Georgia’s top experts now say it’s a possibility on certain tracts.

Next month, we’ll look at part two on the subject of predators and Georgia’s deer. The article will look at ways to identify a potential predator problem on your land and what you can do about it.

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