New Study: Big Timber Not Suitable for Whitetail Fawns

By author of Brow Tines and Backstrap

Fawns Need Quality Low-Level Habitat Cover for Survival

Fawns are much more likely to survive in areas with an abundance of early successional habitat. (Shutterstock/DCW Creations photo)

The sun is shining. Trees are budding out. Flowers are blooming. On the surface, the timber seems like a tranquil place this time of year. But in reality, it’s a treacherous time to be a young white-tailed deer.

Does are fawning, or soon will be. That means one thing — predators are keying on newborns. And sadly, less than half of fawns will live to see their first fall. Kentucky is the last state with a fawn recruitment rate higher than one fawn-per-doe. In some states (especially in the Deep South), fawn recruitment rates are as low as .25 or .30 fawns-per-doe. Translation — in some places, that means it’s taking three to four does just to raise one fawn to maturity. Think that doesn’t have both a short- and long-term effect on deer herds? Think again. Along with habitat destruction, that’s the primary reason deer numbers are declining across the country. And it all starts with the relation between quality cover and the fawn drop.

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Jeffery Mulhollem recently reported on a study conducted by Penn State and the Pennsylvania Game Commission where Tess. M. Gingery, Duane R. Diefenbach, Bret D. Wallingford and Christopher S. Rosenberry discovered that fawns in agricultural settings were much more likely to survive than fawns born in big timber landscapes.

To reach this conclusion, they pulled data samples from four study areas in Pennsylvania and incorporated published data from 29 other deer populations across 16 states.

The research showed that, in contiguous forested landscapes, the estimated average survival to six months of age is approximately 41 percent. However, there was a 5 percent increase in survival for every 10 percent increase in agricultural land area.

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Interestingly, studies have shown that does oftentimes leave forested areas and seek out better fawning cover such as agricultural fields (corn, soybeans, etc.), CRP fields, very young timber, and other forms of early successional habitat. This is the type of plant life deer need to successfully raise fawns. It’s also no surprise this is where you generally find the bulk of the deer herd not only during fawning season but throughout the year also. Deer are edge animals and need edge cover to thrive.

“The findings have management implications, because the results of the meta-analysis indicate that efforts to alter fawn survival to increase overall deer numbers will be challenging,” Mulhollem said. “Although predation is the largest source of mortality and occurred at the greatest rates, predator control efforts are difficult and often unsuccessful.”

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Diefenbach confirmed.

"Managers looking to influence fawn mortality by increasing habitat diversity and maintaining a landscape structure with a mix of agriculture and forest may observe less fawn predation," he said. "However, reduced antlerless harvests may be more effective at achieving deer population objectives than attempts to manipulate the factors that influence fawn mortality."

While black bear and bobcats contribute to fawn predation, coyotes are the bulk of the problem. If predator control is in the plans, it’s important to note that research shows hunting is not a suitable method of effectively reducing coyote populations. However, a strict trapping initiative leading up to and during the fawn drop is the only method that will effectively control coyote populations well enough to increase fawn recruitment rates.

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All in all, state agencies are already having to adjust bag limits due to the effects from predators. Many state agencies are enacting plans to help offset the number of fawns coyotes kill each spring and summer. If we don’t reign in this problem soon enough, both deer and deer hunting will suffer the consequences.

The answer? Better habitat. And better predator control. Sadly, we’re losing on both fronts. We need the ability to trap coyotes year-round. In many states (including my home state of Kentucky), it’s illegal to trap coyotes in the spring and summer. That’s unacceptable. In a time when we should be doing everything we can to help the white-tailed deer, the last thing we need is bad policy preventing us from doing just that.

The same goes for the threat to reduce the CRP program. CRP, CREP and similar programs provide even better fawning cover than agricultural settings do. The longevity of the white-tailed deer is directly linked to the longevity of these habitat programs, and habitat in general. It's time to do something about that.

Click here to read the full report on ScienceDaily on the study referenced above.

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