How Much Impact Are Predators Having on Whitetail Herds?

Posted: February 18, 2015 by gamegetterII in hunting
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As coyotes flood eastward and northward, filling virtually every nook and cranny of viable habitat between Florida and eastern Canada, the gray wolf is stalking the North Woods and northern Rockies. Black bear populations are swelling, and sighting the elusive bobcat is hardly a rare occurrence. Even mountain lions are showing up in new places. And all of this is happening as we humans continue to take millions of deer every year.

Meanwhile, whitetails are facing a host of other issues. Habitat loss, changes in human land-use patterns, disease, hunter harvest and an assortment of other challenges all represent some level of threat. A suite of whitetail predators the likes of which hasn’t been encountered in a century or more is only adding to the difficulty in maintaining high deer numbers.

As evidenced by the white flags waving over the Kansas landscape that spring evening, it’s become a scary world for the whitetail. But how serious is the threat of predation on the long-term viability of the herd? In light of other challenges, are predators the final straw that will push deer over the tipping point? And what, if anything, can we as hunters and conservationists do about it?

The Threat is Real
Without question, the whitetail now exists in an ecosystem characterized by far more predators — and more types of predators — than was the case 40, 20 or even 10 years ago.

“Here’s the thing with predation: Throughout most of the eastern United States, we have historically managed deer herds in the absence of predation,” says Karl V. Miller, professor of wildlife ecology and management at the University of Georgia. “We just figured that most of the predation occurred at the hands of sportsmen. That has changed. We have a predator context in the eastern United States that we historically have not had, and it needs to be taken into account in managing deer.”

Miller is among those spearheading a new study that will include a close look at land-use patterns of coyotes in the Southeast. He’s spent much of his career studying whitetails and the factors that influence them. He notes the coyote’s colonization of the eastern U.S. is a fairly new phenomenon.

In an article published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 2009, Miller, along with coauthors John Kilgo, H. Scott Ray and Charles Ruth, discussed the expansion of coyotes in no uncertain terms.

“During the last half of the 20th century, the range of the coyote expanded dramatically,” Miller and his colleagues wrote. “Coyotes now occupy most of North and Central America. Eastward of the historic western range, coyotes now occur throughout eastern North America from New Brunswick, Canada, to Florida, USA.”

Although some evidence exists to suggest this rapid expansion occurred in part because of the extermination of other predators, the coyote is hardly the only carnivorous threat to whitetails.

“The point to be made here is that we’re not just talking about one predator,” says Dr. James C. Kroll, director of the Institute for White-tailed Deer Management & Research at Stephen F. Austin State University. “It’s an entire suite of predators.”

Kroll is not alone in his assessment. Researchers in the North Woods of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan have noted increased predation of whitetails by wolves. Bobcats are impacting fawn survival in several regions. And mountain lions are efficient ambush predators of adult deer — bucks in particular. The black bear has proven to be a significant killer of fawns throughout its range.

“In some areas of the United States, bears can have more of an impact (on whitetails) than coyotes or wolves,” says Kyle Ravana, who heads up Maine’s deer management program. “In other areas, it could be coyotes or bobcats that are having the biggest impact. It kind of depends on where you are.

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