Wildlife populations are constantly in flux. Both predator and prey populations rise and fall. That’s the natural cycle. However, just as whitetail population management is important, so is predator control.
Jeff Davis of Whitetails Unlimited has spent the majority of his life in Minnesota where predator control is an ongoing battle.
“I once watched a coyote circle around a doe with two fawns, and the doe kept a close eye on the coyote for the 20 minutes or so that the coyote hung around,” Davis said. “She was wary, but didn't seem frightened, and held her fawns close. This has to add stress to her daily life, and I have no way of knowing if these animals are around each other a lot, or if the coyote was just passing through. I have no doubt that if circumstances presented, that coyote would be having fawn for lunch.”
Art Helin has been an avid outdoorsman in the Upper Midwest his entire life. He’s hosted popular hunting shows, works as an outdoor photographer and videographer and has been very active in public promotion of hunting and the outdoor heritage.
Helin has also been a part of ongoing predator research in his home state of Wisconsin.
“I have been part of an ongoing study here in Wisconsin with collaring deer for a predation study,” Helin said. “I was really surprised at the numbers of fawns killed by bobcats and bears. I felt coyotes would have a bigger impact. However, the coyotes and wolves seemed to be a larger problem for the older deer than the fawns. Looking at this study and what they are finding out really puts things into perspective on why we should control all predators — as some are harder on the young population and some are harder on the old. The effect is greater than what people think, especially in areas where bear and wolves share the same habitat. They are born killers and don’t discriminate.”
It’s vital to the well-being of an ecosystem to manage all wildlife populations — both predator and prey. Kip Adams, a wildlife biologist for the Quality Deer Management Association, is a big advocate for responsible predator control.
“Predator populations including coyotes, bears and bobcats should be managed just as we manage game species like deer, turkey and waterfowl,” Adams said. “All wildlife species should be managed for healthy, sustainable populations that are neither below nor above what the environment can sustain.”
Like Adams, Davis believes it’s of the utmost importance to keep predator numbers in check.
“I've spent most of my life in southeastern Minnesota, central Iowa, and northeastern Wisconsin, all areas that have extensive agricultural activity, and predators are a huge problem for farmers as well as wildlife,” Davis said. “In these areas, coyotes, fox and raccoons are viewed as pests, and removing them is the only reasonable action.
“In rural areas, coyotes kill family pets, barn cats, chickens, and young livestock whenever they can, and farmers are happy to have them eliminated,” Davis continued. “I can't speak with any authority, but the general belief among hunters I know is that coyotes (and increasingly, wolves) do kill fawns and young deer, and have an effect on local deer populations. I've seen studies that contend that overall, coyote [hunting] control does not have long-term effect on deer populations, but few hunters are convinced.”
Predators have the potential to do significant damage to whitetail herds throughout the country. Whether it’s wolves, bears, coyotes, bobcats or mountain lions, they all take a toll. Once they are over-populated, whitetails and other game species really begin to suffer.
“In some areas of the whitetail’s range where deer herds are very productive and have access to good habitat, predators have almost no impact on population levels,” Adams said. “In other areas with poor fawning cover, predators can have huge impacts on fawn survival. Predation rates aren’t directly linked to predator numbers. Rather, they must be assessed on a site-by-site basis.”
We know from nation-wide predator research that predatorial effects differ from state-to-state and even county-to-county. That said, in much of the country bears, bobcats and coyotes have more of an effect on whitetail fawns. Bobcats, coyotes and wolves are affecting adult deer populations.
After asking the Minnesota DNR’s Large Carnivore Specialist Dan Stark, it’s somewhat unclear as to what the data shows regarding the Minnesota predator-whitetail relationship — especially with whitetail fawns.
“This may be highly variable depending on where you live/hunt,” Stark said. “Bears, bobcats, coyotes and wolves are all predators of deer fawns. Several studies have tried to measure mortality of deer fawns and results have been inconsistent. While one study revealed that bears, bobcats, and wolves contributed 21 percent, 18 percent, and four percent to fawn mortality respectively, another study contributed 50 percent to both bear and wolf mortality.”
Regardless of said outcomes, though, it’s clear that predators take a high toll on fawns — maybe too high when you factor in how many adult deer are removed from the herd through hunting (and predators) each year. And therein lies the primary reason for a need to control (manage) predator populations.
After interviewing Stark, it also became clear that there’s a disconnect between the views of some deer hunters and wildlife officials. Stark’s overall message seemed to be that larger predators aren’t having a significant negative effect on whitetail herds. Many deer hunters across the state and nation are singing a much different tune in their feelings of how predators are affecting whitetail populations, though.
“Across northern Minnesota, the biggest contributors to deer population declines are winter severity and hunter harvest,” Stark said. “Although an important component of the overall deer mortality, wolves alone are not a major driver in deer population declines. Wolves are the primary predators of deer in northern Minnesota, second in highest cause of mortality only to hunters. Wolf predation on deer is greatest during mid-late winter, coinciding with periods of poor body condition and deep snow.
“In relation to white-tailed deer in Minnesota, there is uncertainty of the benefits of predator control,” Stark continued. “However, there may be localized areas where reduction of predators could help recovering deer populations where they are limited by maturation of habitat and winter severity. However, it may be difficult to measure any benefits given the changes in deer population following reductions in hunter harvest and mild winters.
“Wolves have been well established across northern Minnesota for decades,” Stark continued. “We’ve had record-high deer harvests that coincided with record-high wolf estimates. It’s something that hunters need to learn to accept and for some they may even embrace it. Considering that areas with wolves contribute more to the hunting experience and appreciation for wild places that support the predator and prey that they seek out. In some localized situations, almost certainly on a small scale in space and time, it’s possible that the presence of wolves affects success (negatively or positively) for individual deer hunters. But over time and statewide, not just the few days hunted each year, scientific data clearly shows that a healthy wolf population is synonymous with a healthy deer population.
“What’s been observed here in Minnesota is that when the deer population declines following severe winters or over harvest the wolf population usually declines as well as a result of lower deer density,” Stark concluded. “In the late 1990s and late 2000s, following deer declines, we observed a quick rebound in deer populations without predator control — with reduced deer harvest and mild winters.”
As mentioned, not all wildlife biologists are in total agreement with Stark in that predator population management is as ineffective or unnecessary as he seemed to suggest. Adams clearly believes it’s just as important to manage both predator and prey species for a balanced, healthy ecosystem. I also spoke with Dr. Grant Woods. He too believed that predator control is an important part of wildlife management. It’s all about moderation and what’s best for all wildlife — including both predators and white-tailed deer.
There are mixed feelings on the best methods of predator control. However, it’s pretty clear that trapping is the only proven method for reducing predators such as coyotes and bobcats. Hunting is the only available method for managing wolves and bears. And a mountain lion season east of the Mississippi isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.
“The most effective way to control predators is to hunt and/or trap them,” Davis said. “They can be tough to hunt, and not many people trap anymore, and when conditions are right the population in a local area can explode and become a real problem.”
At the end of the day, sportsmen and sportswomen agree with, believe in and support a healthy population of predators. But like whitetails and other game species, predators also need managing. And there’s too much data out there that proves predator management can have a positive effect on whitetail populations to discredit it. It’s time to implement responsible predator management for the betterment of the whitetails and ecosystem in general. Anyone who suggests otherwise is behind the times.