The Coyote Factor

How big of a bite out of your deer herd are coyotes taking, and what can you do about it? Difficult questions, but here is some insight.

Although scientific research has not been completed on the subject, it seems clear that coyotes on certain tracts of land in Georgia have increased to populations where predation on fawns can limit a local deer population. In some cases, coyotes are actually causing local deer populations to drop.

For the landowner or lease manager who suspects that coyotes are a primary reason for lackluster results of his or her deer management, there’s a legitimate concern about the coyote impacts on that piece of property.

How would one know if coyotes are a problem, enough of a problem that they are having a tangible impact? Unfortunately, no one has a simple answer to that question. Like any aspect of deer management, there are so many factors and so many possible scenarios that is it almost impossible to give a simple formula for judging whether you have too many coyotes and that they are impacting your deer herd. There are, however, indicators hunters can look for that could mean coyotes are a problem.

Tommy Key has a wildlife degree, and he also has more than 40 years of in-the-field experience as a professional trapper and as a consultant and land manager for several quality tracts near his Harris County home. Tommy owns S&T Farms Wildlife Management Services and has held every office in the Georgia Trappers Association (GTA).

“Predator control is a firm part of wildlife management,” Tommy said. “In some cases, you need a certain amount of predators, but I do believe when they get a little thick, they’re going to have an impact. If you have a high prey base, usually the predators will multiply. In certain areas, if there’s not parvo or mange or distemper, and coyotes get highly populated in a place, I believe with all my heart they have an impact on fawns and turkeys. I think some biologists are trying not to point the finger too heavily at coyotes, but I’m telling you, I’ve trapped for 40 something years, and I have found where you have these regional differences where coyotes are real thick and it gets out of kilter, then you’re going to suffer.”

Reading the indicators that would tell you it is getting out of kilter is a gray area, but Tommy has some sound advice to help hunters get a read on what is going on. The simple fact that the hunting hasn’t been as good as you would have liked the past few years in itself isn’t enough to warrant the time, expense, and dedication it takes for a successful predator-control effort. Deer sightings and harvest are part of the equation, but Tommy said hunters really need to keep good records and look for other signs.

“Most people think when they don’t kill deer or turkeys that something is getting them. That’s not always the case. Things to pay attention to are if you’re actually spotting coyotes a lot, different coyotes, and you start to find scat where you normally wouldn’t find it. You’ve got to watch for scat in roads, then examine it and see what they’re eating.”

Tommy said deer hair in scat is not a good indicator because coyotes will feed on road-killed deer and in the fall they will feed on carcasses left in the woods by hunters.

“If you’re out on your place in June and examine the scats and finding poult feathers and little-bitty deer hooves, then that’s an indication of high predation. Then if you keep good records, and it seems like the population or the harvest is on a downward trend, those factors together are a way to identify a coyote problem,” Tommy said.

Other indicators to look for in the fall are whether you are seeing fawns, and whether you kill adult does that are not lactating. Most adult does should have a fawn or two with them when they show up at a water-oak tree in October.

“It wouldn’t hurt to hunt or trap the predators once a year or at least every other year,” Tommy said. “I try to read the signs to determine whether to do it every year or every other year.

“In general in the state of Georgia, I think we have an increase in coyotes. They are intelligent creatures. They’ll just about eat anything to survive. I’ve cut them open and found corn in their bellies from where people are feeding deer. They will be capable of surviving when other things die off.”

The survivability and adaptability of coyotes is legendary. Suppose from observations and record-keeping you deduce that you have a coyote problem, now for some more bad news. Getting rid of coyotes seems to be an impossibility.

Tommy said the best way to try to control coyotes is to find a good trapper.

“Call the DNR, and every Game Management office should possess a list of nuisance trappers with contact information including the counties they are willing to work in and what animals they will handle,” Tommy said.
Other potential sources for trappers are the message boards at www.gon.com and the Georgia Trapper’s Association website at www.gatrappersassoc.com.

The best time to trap coyotes is the fall and winter, Tommy said, but he has found that most hunting clubs don’t want trappers on their property during the season.

“In the cold-weather months, food is scarce. Coyotes eat fruit, berries, grasshoppers, about anything, and during the spring and summer you have a lot of that,” he said.

There is so much food out there that trapping is more difficult.

“As the fall comes in, leaves begin to sour, the fields dry up, and a lot of available food is narrowed down. It’s better to trap in cold weather when they are more interested in the smells. Really, when I try to do most of my coyote trapping is from mid January toward the end of February. The fall is the best time, but it’s a hard pitch to throw to hunters.”

There is another alternative, and one that will appeal to most folks who have hunting land.

“I would encourage people to hunt predators. It’s a lot of fun,” Tommy said.

Randy Vining of Milner is a hunter who has taken to the challenge and enjoyment of hunting coyotes. A die-hard turkey hunter among other outdoor pursuits, Randy discovered coyote hunting by circumstance.

“It started about 10 years ago. It seemed like every time I tried to call a turkey, a coyote would come in, so I started shooting coyotes,” he said.

He compares coyote hunting to turkey hunting because of the calling, the camo required, and because it can be very difficult to call one into range.

“Actually they’re smarter than turkeys,” Randy said. “People always said if a turkey had a nose like a deer you’d never kill one, or if a deer had eyes like a turkey you’d never kill one. A coyote has all of that. They are that slick, and they learn. If you hunt the same place over and over, and you use the same calls every time, you’ll quit seeing them come in. You’ll say, ‘Hey man, I’ve put a dent in them.’ But there’ll be as much scat on the roads as there ever was.”

Randy hunts on a 1,000-acre tract in Monroe County, and he has spent 10 years going after the coyotes there. While he loves the sport and feels every dead coyote helps, the hunting efforts haven’t lowered the coyote population.

“I hunt it as much as I can without wearing it out, but there’s more scat now than there’s ever been,” Randy said. “Scat is really the only way to tell if you have a problem with coyotes. Scat means a coyote has been there, and if a coyote has been there, he’s not by himself. In some areas like in the city, you might have just a pair move in. But out here in the country they will multiply to the carrying capacity of the land. The more they have to eat, the more they will multiply, and they eat anything. They’re like a dadgum billy goat. They eat corn, soybeans, trash… they’ll eat your cats and small dogs. They’ll eat anything.

“Every one you take out is going to help, there’s no doubt about that. You can’t rid of them, but I wish more people would take up the sport of hunting them. It’s a wonderful sport.”

For feature-length articles on hunting coyotes, click here.

Some landowners or hunting clubs won’t take up the call to arms against coyotes, whether because of a lack of time or interest, or possibly because they simply aren’t interested in shooting an animal that will likely be left to lay where it falls. For those, another option for dealing with a coyote situation is wildlife and habitat management.

One of the nation’s premier whitetail researchers is Dr. Karl Miller of the University of Georgia, who said good habitat might reduce the impact of coyotes.

“One of the important things to reduce coyote predation is to have a lot of good fawning and bedding cover. If you don’t have the cover, they just don’t have any place to hide and they’re just wide open,” Karl said.

A simple way to improve fawning cover is to let food plots and fields grow until late summer. If you have food plots of Durana clover that are beginning to look more like weed plots by mid June, it’s a tough decision of whether to mow and maintain the clover or leave it alone to provide good fawning cover. But leaving the bushhog in the barn and letting fields grow tall until late July is an easy way to create excellent fawning cover.

All of the studies of fawn predation cited in last month’s article show that of the fawns killed by predators, about 85 percent of them are killed by predators in their first six weeks of life. After that, predation on whitetail fawns drops off dramatically.

Kent Kammermeyer, a recently retired Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) biologist and a top expert on deer management, said coyotes are a frustrating issue for hunters because they are so difficult to hunt and trap. He feels that keeping your deer herd managed at a moderate population for the carrying capacity of the land, and then trying to achieve a balanced buck-to-doe sex ratio as close to 1:1 as possible, are the best defenses against coyotes and other predators. A good sex ratio and a moderate population will produce a concentrated rut where almost all of the does are bred during the peak.

“It’s a theory called predator swamping, and it makes dang good sense. If you get a concentrated fawn drop in a real short time period, 90 percent of the fawns are hitting the ground within a two-week period. You swamp the predators that are out there. I don’t care how many fawns they try to eat, they can only eat a certain percentage of them because they’re all on the ground at once. If you spread that fawning period out for two months instead of two weeks, you have the table set for the predators, and they’re going to eat a higher percentage of the fawns with a spread out fawn drop.”

Having too many deer in an area can lead to higher percentages of fawns being taken by coyotes, even though more fawns are produced. Wildlife photographer Tommy Kirkland has witnessed coyotes hunting for fawns by homing in on the sound of a fawn bleating.

“Good nourishment for does is very important and will give a fawn a much higher chance of survival. That fawn will nurse and sleep like a baby and not bleat. A doe that is not getting the nutrients it needs, her fawn isn’t going to be getting enough nutrition. It is going to lay out there and bleat all day. Those fawns are sitting ducks.”

A study in Michigan was clearcut. If a fawn hit the ground at seven pounds birth weight or higher, it had a 90 percent chance of survival. If a fawn hit the ground with a birthweight of five pounds or lower, it had a 10 percent chance of survival.

Kent recognizes that some hunters will want to increase their deer population thinking they can offset any losses of fawns to predators.

“We’re saying that predators are probably having an impact, but we’re also saying keep your deer populations at a moderate level. Hunters are already worried about predators killing too many fawns. They are going to balk at controlling the doe population for a better adult sex ratio because they think that almost defeats the purpose. But I think if you manage your deer herd, the problem will get better. It won’t go away, but it will get better.”

Are coyotes having enough of an impact on your land to justify the time, effort and expense of trying to do something about them? To get a read on the impact of coyotes you will need to study the indicators and keep up with harvest and deer-sighting records.

How do you get rid of the coyotes on your land? You don’t. No matter how hard you try to kill every coyote, you can’t.

If you do a little, is that better than nothing? Everyone we spoke with said yes. Whether you decide to combat the impact of coyotes through trapping or hunting, or whether you try to improve the condition of your deer herd and habitat to improve fawn survival and deer recruitment, the answer is yes.

Coyotes are here to stay. Wildlife professionals and land managers are just beginning to recognize a potential problem that could be occurring on certain tracts of land. Like all aspects of deer hunting, the information will continue to improve, and it will be up to hunters to make the decisions that are best for their land and for their local deer herd.

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