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Wiltz: Do coyotes affect our South Dakota deer herd?

Wolves have decimated some of Wyoming's and Idaho's elk herds.

Have coyotes done the same thing, at least in some areas, to our deer?

Let's imagine that we are sitting around a campfire. We're talking deer, and someone asks what we think about deer depredation as it relates to coyotes. Do the coyotes, at least the ones in South Dakota, affect the size of our state's deer herd?

When it's my turn to opine my thoughts, I'll admit that I've never observed coyotes taking down or eating on a deer, but I have had people who witnessed such activity tell me about it. Some have even shown me photos. In some instances, big bucks, not just fawns, were involved.

The January 2017 issue of American Hunter carries the story, "How Much Do Coyotes Affect Deer Populations?" by Frank Miniter. Some research based information is offered. Before we look at it, I want to look back at a column of mine from Nov. 27, 1996. Verne Twitero, a friend and associate at the Wagner School, related a story to me.

Verne told of a trophy whitetail buck he had hunted for four years in the Hermosa area where his brother had a ranching operation. Chuck, his brother, had been looking out of a window at dawn, and spotted some movement down a nearby draw that included coyotes. Thinking it might involve livestock, he dashed out of the house with his rifle. The frenzied coyote pack had a deer down, and Chuck killed three of the coyotes before they lit out. The trophy buck they had taken down was still alive.

The deer struggled to its feet and Chuck herded the crippled animal to a corral, where it died shortly thereafter. The insides of both hind quarters had already been eaten nearly to the bone. Close examination revealed that the buck had been pulled down by the tarsal gland on the inside of the left hind leg. Chuck also took some excellent photos that Verne passed on to me for that 20 year-old column. In case you had any doubts, coyotes will obviously attack mature deer — big bucks included. As the time was late November, that buck may have been weakened by rut activity.

A few columns back, I wrote about the Jackie Gau buck at Pease Creek that had locked antlers with another buck. While her five-by-five buck had miraculously survived, at least for the time being, its opponent had been eaten alive by coyotes while locked to Jackie's deer. Coyotes are certainly opportunists.

Miniter begins his article by telling us that Eastern coyotes are bigger than their Western and Midwestern counterparts because they are wolf hybrids. He suggests that because of their size, they are more successful than our coyotes as deer hunters. Personally, I'm not buying into that theory.

Miniter then talks about the coyotes of Maine and Nova Scotia. He says that in certain areas, these coyotes do have a significant impact on deer numbers because they can run the deer in deep snow and account for 30 percent of the annual deer mortality. I don't know that this is unusual. Some years bring more snow than others. Shouldn't Minnesota and some of our other states fit this scenario?

In the article's conclusion, the author states that for the most part, coyotes do not have a detrimental effect on deer herds ... with the exception of the Southeast. A three-year study in South Carolina found that only 16 of 60 radio-collared fawns or 27 percent lived beyond nine weeks. Of the 44 fawns that were killed before reaching an age of nine weeks, 85 percent were killed by coyotes. Still, in spite of these numbers, the researchers concluded that this high mortality rate would have only a minimal impact on a healthy herd.

The article also concluded that most coyote damage involves fawns in their first eight weeks of life. Personally, I believe that the above-mentioned South Carolina study is too small and too isolated to draw any significant conclusions.

I'd like to know your thoughts on the following. We South Dakota deer hunters, archery or rifle, observe a lot of deer. In my opinion, at least 50 percent of the does I observe have fawns with them. If I'm anywhere near correct on this, could we conclude that our South Dakota fawn survival rate equals or surpasses 50 percent?

Of course, there are variables. A yearling or one-and-a-half-year-old female is sexually an adult when we observe her in the fall, but she probably won't have a fawn at her side. She was a fawn the previous fall, and probably didn't get bred ... although she might have. Another thing. Come November, when a doe is about to go in heat, she will quite often send her fawns on their way. These factors make my simple observations rather loose ... just like I think Mr. Miniter's article is rather loose.

If I could play God and eliminate all the coyotes from the face of the earth, would I do it? Not on my life! One of those fawn coyote dinners might have wrecked my pickup. Too many deer raise havoc with cornfields. Coyotes control rodents, and rodents carry disease. I haven't even mentioned the sport coyotes provide.

I enjoy the Sports Afield, Sporting Classics, Gray's Sporting Journal, African Hunting Gazette, Petersen's Hunting and American Hunter magazines to which I subscribe. On occasion they obviously provide column material. When an advertisement for Guns & Ammo magazine at under $10 for a year's subscription dropped out of one of these magazines a few months ago, it made me think. The Guns & Ammo people can't mail me 12 issues for $10! How can I lose? Maybe I'm wrong, but I'd have to guess that advertising, not selling subscriptions, is their primary business.

See you next week.

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