Whitetail Predation 101: Someone's Killing Your Deer

Last fall I blogged about how the proliferation of coyotes and other predators is changing the deer management rules. I was reminded of that last week when our lab proudly emerged from a hedgerow carrying a fawn leg in his mouth. Barely a foot long, you could cover its hoof with the nail of your thumb. The fawn couldn't have been more than a week old when it died.

A little CSI revealed it to be the work of a bear. We'd seen him working a nearby standing corn field this spring, so it was no surprise when our dog led us to an area tramped down with bear tracks and piles of scat.The little guy was one of a half dozen or so fawns that were killed on my son Neil's 200-acre farm this spring. The place is well populated with whitetails and the little guy probably won't be missed. This time it was a bear, but it could have easily been a coyote or even a bobcat. All are excellent hunters, and all are taking their share of fawns as you read this blog.

While we are always saddened by the death of a creature, we have come to accept the fact that this is going to happen when your property holds 75-100 deer per square mile. We might be at the top of the food chain, but we are not the only predators working it. Its nature's way, and we've come to accept it as such.

But we do not just sit idly by and let it happen. We fling lead at every coyote we see, but have come to understand (as every predator expert knows) that we are no match for well-established 'yotes. Besides, in our neck of the woods, most of the predators (bears, bobcats, coyotes) are protected with limited seasons. And even with an open season, most experts contend that it's virtually impossible to wipe out an entire coyote population (not that we would want to). Some areas have cougars and panthers (Florida) to contend with as well. Anybody see that pack of wild dogs lately? You get the picture.

Our solution is to create fawning habitat that gives fawns half a chance of escaping predators the first month of life when they are most vulnerable. That means lots of brush habitat, old abandoned fields, piles and piles of tree tops and few, if any, wooded areas with no understory. The doe will use the habitat to the fawn's advantage. Great fawning cover gives the fawns a fighting chance and helps other wildlife as well.

We also factor fawn predation into our overall deer harvest equation. We do a census every September and keep a careful eye on habitat depredation by deer. Some time in late October we make a decision as to how many does to take. Happily, our state affords us the opportunity to manage deer numbers on our property by issuing us sufficient deer management permits. Our job is to make sure we do not over utilize them and take too many does(see my post on how to do this here). Our neighbors, well that's another matter altogether.

With coyote populations exploding in many parts of the country, predation is increasing exponentially. Hunters need to view themselves as deer managers and act accordingly. You may need to back off on your doe harvest if you have a high population of predators using your hunting grounds. State agencies are notoriously lacking at site-specific management and all deer management should be site specific. Be assured, most of their management models don't even factor predation into the kill numbers. Bottom line: just because they issued you a pocketful of doe permits doesn't mean you have to use them. You don't want to kill the last doe standing on your property do you?

How do you know how many does to take? Well that is basically a habitat issue. The goal is to harvest enough deer to keep the habitat healthy, but not so many as to put the deer population in danger from overharvest and ruin the hunting. It's a narrow line we walk, but walk it we must. You need to know how to read habitat and count deer, two topics I have already blogged about.

The purpose of this blog is to remind you that you are not the only predator in the woods, and certainly not the best. Its open season on fawns.