There is a lot of information out there about the impact of predators on many of the animals we love to pursue. Some of this information is accurate and some is purely propaganda designed to get you to buy a product or service. This begs the question: how can you be sure you are getting the most current, accurate information?

Well…to be honest….you can’t always be sure. But what you can do is empower yourself with information! Read as much as you can, ask the experts, and especially, rely on the available research to make informed decisions. My guess is you don’t sit around reading research papers in your spare time….nor should you! But a lot of people get paid to know what the most current research tells us about managing wildlife, and I encourage you to contact those people and ask questions.

Research is the foundation of wildlife management. Neither management nor research would survive without the other. Through research we can learn what works and what doesn’t. Without research, we are just shooting in the dark. So, when someone tells you “trust me, it works,” ask them if there is any research to support it. If they don’t know, call your local state wildlife biologist or university wildlife extension specialist and ask him/her. If they don’t know the answer, they will know how to find it. Be patient but be diligent. Beware of anyone that dismisses research results that disagree with their opinion. Research is not perfect, but at its core, it is unbiased. Researchers don’t have a stake in the answer. Their goal is to find the answer and make sure it’s valid.  It’s up to those of you who manage our wildlife populations to use the information wisely.

THE TRUTH

Predator management is one of the many tools wildlife managers use to increase the amount of game in an area. It certain situations, predator management can produce valuable results, but it is most certainly not a guarantee. Therefore, it is very important to “manage your expectations.” Nowhere has the issue of predator management been more of a hot topic than with managing white-tailed deer populations in the Deep South. My goal is to summarize and break down the scientific research on this topic, so landowners and land managers fully understand the potential rewards and limitations of managing predators for whitetails.

Let’s start with some basics: predators eat prey! While this seems to be a novel idea to some people, it really shouldn’t be. I am constantly shocked at how upset people get when they find out that something ate a deer fawn on their property. Apparently not everyone paid attention to the “food web lesson” in 4th grade science class. Predators have been eating prey for a pretty long time.  It is not a new phenomenon. While many animals sometimes eat deer, the focus of everyone’s attention has currently been on coyotes.

Let me be clear…coyotes do eat deer! Perhaps more importantly, coyotes have been eating deer for as long as the two species have been on the planet. However, what is relatively new is the presence and abundance of coyotes in the southeastern United States.

Coyotes have been making a very successful eastward range expansion, which makes them a relatively new risk factor for deer in the Southeast. We know that southeastern deer populations historically faced predation from red wolves, but red wolves have been absent from the landscape for quite some time. Pressure from bobcats, bears, and other predators has not been nearly as prevalent as that from coyotes during the last few decades.

Several research projects across the southeast have confirmed that coyotes eat a large proportion of deer fawns in some areas. Researchers have even documented coyotes eating adult deer in some areas. So, there is no doubt coyotes are eating deer. The simple conclusion to draw would be that reducing the number of coyotes through trapping or shooting should result in more fawns and thus, more deer, right?

Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple. Luckily there is a lot of research on this topic to help us understand why it’s not that simple.

Several wildlife scientists from around the Southeast have been conducting research to see how fawn recruitment changes with predator trapping. The results are mixed. Some showed drastically increased fawn recruitment on areas with predator trapping and some did not.

Other researchers looked at fawn recruitment before and after trapping, and found that, while fawn survival was higher in some years of trapping, it was not higher each year. Even then, the increase was modest. There are plenty of reasons for these mixed results. One potential reason is not all researchers knew what proportion of the coyote population they removed.

Killing a lot of coyotes might always sound like a good idea, but unless you know how many are left that you did not kill, it’s just a number. That’s why it is important to have a way to measure coyote abundance before and after you began trapping. Without this information you cannot understand how many coyotes you are dealing with, how many to remove to make a difference, and how much time and money it will take to reach that number. To counter that many people say, “Well, I’ve never seen a dead coyote eat a fawn”’ as justification to trap or shoot, regardless of the outcome.  While this is a true statement, it shows a failure to understand how wildlife populations work.

What we do know about coyotes is that there are usually two types walking around: territory holders (residents) and non-territory holders (transients). Research has shown that the home range of resident coyotes can vary considerably. For example, resident coyotes have been reported to have home ranges as small as 3 square miles to as large as 18 square miles. On the other hand, transient coyote home ranges have been shown to range from 25 square miles to 245 square miles. We also know that as soon as a territory holder dies there is a transient coyote waiting to take that spot….and it happens quickly.

THERE ARE THREE MAJOR LESSONS WE CAN LEARN FROM THIS BODY OF RESEARCH:

1.Just because you killed a coyote doesn’t necessarily mean you saved a fawn; you just stopped that particular coyote from eating it! Trust me, there is another one on the way!

2.Removing a few coyotes here and there might not help you much, especially if they are transients just passing through. The resident territory holder is probably eating more of your fawns, so success cannot be measured simply by how many coyotes you kill.

3.Because of their large home ranges, unless you own several square miles of property, the trapping or shooting you do on your land is probably not enough to make noticeable impact. You need to increase your impact on the landscape by talking to your neighbors and their neighbors and getting them on board too. The larger the area trapped the greater potential for success.

Most researchers agree that if you are going to trap, focus your effort in the spring before fawns hit the ground.  The goal is to knock back the predators before they have a chance to rebound, which they likely will. This brief period actually might be enough time to give fawns a few weeks to figure out their legs and have a better chance and surviving. Research has shown that most of the mortality from predators comes in the first few weeks of life. If you can knock back the predators enough to give fawns a break during that period, your chances of success are much better.

The downside of this approach is that pelt quality is much lower during this time of year. One of the largest studies conducted looked at multiple research projects across the country and showed that despite trapper’s best efforts, coyote numbers on trapped sites are not declining, but rather are staying about the same. We are basically just managing coyotes as a recreational resource where we remove just enough for the population to bounce back.  We don’t seem to be removing enough to reduce the population long term. This is important because it highlights an important point that is often overlooked in predator management: once you start, you need to stick with it.

Predator management, like many other management tools, is not a one-time fix. Much like prescribed fire, predator management has to be continuously repeated to have any chance at success.  So, if you are thinking about starting a predator management program, think long term.

The one thing all the deer-coyote research has in common is that not a single study tried just shooting coyotes as the only removal method. They all involved intensive, targeted, removal by using just trapping, or trapping and shooting together. No research has yet to show that random or even targeted shooting alone has a measurable impact on coyotes or fawn recruitment.

The point is that randomly shooting a coyote when you see one probably does nothing to help deer on your property. If you want any chance of possibly increasing fawn recruitment, you must fully commit to intensive, long-term trapping. Now, does that mean it’s a bad idea to shoot a coyote when you see one? That’s your call, but if we’ve learned anything from research it’s that our best efforts are not hurting coyote populations at all. They are a sustainable resource that can obviously withstand recreational harvest.

So, if it is legal in your state, by all means enjoy the resource to the extent the law allows. I know we all want to feel good because we did something good for our deer herd, but please don’t think that because you shot three coyotes from your deer stand last hunting season that you saved a bunch of fawns, because your probably didn’t even make a dent.

Another important thing we have learned from research is that coyotes’ diets are not just deer fawns. Coyotes are omnivores and have a diverse diet. Coyote diet studies have shown that coyotes eat a lot of small rodents, fruits, and even grain crops at different times of the year.  Coyotes are adaptable and opportunistic meaning they will take advantage of the most available food source around.

Researchers have also shown that when the amount of other foods (small rodents, blackberries, persimmons, muscadines, etc.) is high in a coyote’s diet, the amount of deer in their diet is lower. Does this mean that we can get coyotes to give up on deer if there is an abundance of other foods around? Of course not, but when there are plenty of other highly nutritious foods around, it might take some of the pressure off deer fawns.

The goal of most wildlife managers is to maximize results while minimizing cost. Unfortunately, return on investment (ROI) is a term you don’t often here in wildlife management circles. But the fact is, we are rarely operating with unlimited funds and at the end of the day, we need to be able to prove our results to whoever is paying the bills. One thing to always keep in mind is that there are no guarantees in wildlife management.

Managing wildlife is not like performing a chemistry experiment where we can control the variables. Even our best efforts cannot always overpower the impact of weather or the landscape around us. Nothing is guaranteed and nothing but rainfall is free, so fully understanding the cost versus the benefits is important for being successful.

So when considering a predator trapping program, consider the costs and the potential benefits.  It may be worth it to you, it may not be. But you can only make an informed decision if you understand every piece of this management puzzle.

THE FIX…OR, “THE BEST THAT WE CAN DO”

So, based off all that we know from research, what should you do?  First and foremost, monitor your deer and predator population. Use trail cameras, scent stations, trapping, visual observations, deer hunting apps or anything to help you keep track of how deer and predator populations on your property are doing.

If you aren’t seeing enough deer, determine if your habitat is sufficient. Many people are scrambling to blame coyotes for what is really a case of poor habitat management.  If the only quality habitat you have is a few food plots, start managing the forest by thinning or prescribed fire (where appropriate).

People tend to focus too much on creating more food for deer without thinking about habitat.  If there is not enough cover to hide fawns, then a coyote’s job is pretty easy. Make it harder for them to find fawns. Create high-quality deer habitat so fawns have a chance. I assure you that creating good cover will also create an abundance of high-quality deer food too!

Make as much of your property’s quality deer habitat before you start trying to manage predators. If you see enough deer but you have coyotes, you might not have a problem. In that case, keep monitoring both and be ready to act proactively instead of reactively if the balance shifts.  However, if your habitat is sufficient and you are seeing a reduction in deer sightings and coyotes are increasing in abundance, the time to act was yesterday.

If you can afford to trap yourself or hire a trapping crew, there is no harm in doing so but also no guarantees. If you want a real chance at success, convince every landowner around you to join your efforts. Otherwise, it becomes an expensive game of “Whack a Mole!”

You don’t want to be in the situation where every coyote you remove gets replaced by a coyote from one of your neighbors’ places.

The most recent research tells us that if you are seeing a reduction in fawn recruitment due to predators, the best approach is to combine intensive trapping with a reduction in your doe harvest. This is confusing to many hunters, because wildlife biologists have been pushing increased doe harvest for quality deer management for years, but as the landscape and predator contexts change, so do the management recommendations.

Right now, the research tells us that predator trapping alone is not enough in some situations.  Pairing trapping with reduced doe harvest might be just what we need to get more fawns on the ground.

The recommendations from research may change in a few years just like they have recently. As frustrating as that might be to managers, remember that the only reason sanctions and opinions change is because researchers are constantly trying to learn more and provide the best information.

Science is dynamic. Landscapes and populations change, often faster than scientists can respond.  But the goal of science and of gamekeepers is to understand these changes and know how to respond to them.  Science and research are a wildlife manager’s best two friends.  But if we ignore the results, we are doomed to make and repeat mistakes.

By Mark McConnell