Hungry coyotes might threaten Georgia deer herds

Hungry coyotes might threaten Georgia deer herds

By Lee Shearerpublished Sunday, October 21, 2012

Trouble could be brewing between Georgia deer hunters and the state’s robust coyote population.

The dog-like creatures once roamed mainly the middle part of the U.S., but after humans extirpated larger predators such as wolves and panthers, they spread to most of the United States, including Georgia, where they prey on deer fawns, scientists say.

“For the most part, this is an animal that eats smaller deer,” according to UGA wildlife scientist Mike Chamberlain.

Chamberlain and other UGA researchers presented their latest research in trying to keep track of Georgia’s coyote population and their impact on state deer herds at a recent meeting of the Quality Deer Management Association in Athens.

The Eastern coyotes we have in Georgia are bigger than their western cousins, Chamberlain said.

Scientists in the Northeast, where coyotes appeared before showing up in Georgia, analyzed Eastern coyote data and found they had bred with Canadian wolves. Coyotes also can breed with dogs, but those offspring don’t contribute much to the gene pool, the DNA analysis showed.

Coyotes are highly adaptable and opportunistic eaters, and change what they eat according to the time of year and what’s available, Chamberlain said.

In cities, they will eat pet food if they can find it. In the wild, they like small prey, including small deer fawns, and that worries some deer hunters.

Studies in Midwestern and Northeastern states show coyotes take 10 percent to 20 percent of deer fawns, according to UGA deer management researcher Karl Miller and Williams Gulsby, a UGA doctoral student investigating what they call “fawn recruitment,” the number of fawns who survive to a certain age.

But studies indicate coyotes dine on fawns more often in Southeastern states, Gulsby and Miller wrote in Quality Whitetails, a journal published by the Quality Deer Management Association. Miller runs UGA’s Deer Laboratory with another professor in the university’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, Robert Warren.

Southeastern researchers have found that coyotes may be cutting deer recruitment in half, reducing the fawn survival from about one fawn per doe down to about half that, Miller and Gulsby wrote.

Some ecology researchers believe state land management practices have resulted in deer overpopulation and see coyote predation as probably a good thing. But the fawn recruitment statistics worry some hunters.

“I like a lot of deer when I go hunting,” said one deer hunter.

Others worry that coyotes could become a threat to pets such as house cats and small dogs. Pets make up an important part of coyote diets in some Western cities, but scientists in Georgia haven’t seen much evidence that coyotes do much dining on dogs or cats.

But the Georgia coyote story still is unfolding, according to Chamberlain. Not only are Eastern coyotes bigger, but they don’t behave in textbook coyote fashion; they are so adaptable, they change their behavior according to circumstances.

“These animals are swarming all over the landscape, and they don’t take time to read books about what they should do,” he said.

But UGA and state researchers are trying to learn more.

In one Deer Laboratory research project, wildlife scientists are trying to see if they can get a rough estimate of the state coyote population using DNA fingerprinting of coyote scats.

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