Hunters, biologists disagree on coyote's impact on deer

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal file 2004

An Eastern coyote at the Maine Wildlife Park as seen in this 2004 Sun Journal file photo.

Seen any nice deer lately in western Maine?

Maine Senate photo

Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock, left, looks on as Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, speaks during a March 2011 press conference on the state's wildlife management plan. Trahan, a lifelong coyote and deer hunter, is now the executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine and a leading advocate for an intensified coyote management plan for Maine.

Submitted photo

David Trahan

Terry Karkos/Sun Journal

Jerrold Mason

Terry Karkos/Sun Journal

James Mason

In a state where deer hunting annually attracts more than 150,000 participants who collectively support a hunting-based economy worth more than $200 million, deer populations have dropped to alarming levels in all but southern Maine, according to Gerry Lavigne, a recently retired state deer biologist.

Rhetoric and emotions are largely pinning the blame on Eastern coyote populations, which have grown since the late 1970s, the same time deer numbers began spiraling downward, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The real culprit some say is a complex set of factors, such as harsh winters, habitat loss, starvation, disease, bear, bobcat and coyote predation on fawns, and human-caused mortality from hunting, poaching and road kill.

Maine’s current leading deer expert seems to agree.

“It typically is multiple factors that conspire together to cause a problem and people get sick of hearing about it, but you take habitat and you pile on top of that a bad winter,” said Lee Kantar, Maine’s deer and moose biologist.

“We’re in a cycle right now where we’ve had some pretty rugged winters for deer over the last five years,” he said. “This time of the year when there’s no snow on the ground, coyotes are not running amok killing deer willy-nilly. That’s just not happening. There’s no evidence of that.”

Lavigne disagreed.

“It’s really the inter-relationship between poor habitat and the presence of coyotes that has made this the problem that it is,” Lavigne said Friday.

“In the absence of coyotes, the population of deer in northern Maine would have still gone down, but probably not as quickly or as deeply.”

“And studies have shown that during severe winters, the overall loss of deer is higher in the presence of coyotes than the absence of them,” he said.

“Coyotes aren’t just taking the starving deer; they’re taking the healthy deer, as well, so that compounds the problem,” Lavigne said.

But, according to a statement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “generally speaking, coyotes do not even hunt deer, nor do they have a significant impact on deer populations.”

According to a customer service representative at the federal wildlife agency, “the only wild canines that regularly hunt deer are wolves,” and, “coyotes are solitary hunters. Their primary prey are small mammals such as mice, voles, rabbits, etc., as well as a variety of vegetable matter.”

The only time, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, “a coyote, or a pair of coyotes, were to bring down a deer, it would be one that is very old, sick or weak, which would serve to improve the deer population,” and “controlling, or even eliminating, coyote populations is not going to have any effect on the deer populations.”

In Maine, Kantar said the severe winters of 2008 and 2009 were devastating for deer.

“I think what we’re looking at right now with the deer population is that those two back-to-back winters, I think it really did a lot of damage to a lot of areas of the state up north,” he said.

Scapegoat predator

Former Oquossoc resident Walter Pepperman, a Maine Wolf Coalition advocate, and independent conservation biologist Geri Vistein of Washington, Maine, agree.

“I just do not believe that coyote predation is a problem that’s affecting the deer herd to the point that deer hunters should be thinking that coyotes are cutting into their sport,” said Pepperman, 77, now of Middletown Springs, Vt.

“Predation by coyotes is like a scapegoat for everything else that happens that affects deer numbers.”

He said he firmly believes that deer hunters “want the exclusive right to kill the deer to the exclusion of the coyotes.”

Vistein, a wildlife biologist, said she sees the coyote as a beneficial predator that keeps deer populations healthy.

“The whole concept of the predator-prey relationship on the Earth is invaluable to the health of the system, whether we’re talking about a ladybug and an aphid or we’re talking about coyotes and deer,” Vistein said.

“So, without the predator relationship, there is a lack of balance and a lack of health in the system.”

“Coyote is the best thing that happened to our deer herd in over 150 years,” Vistein said.

“Our deer herds have been without their predators and that’s the reason they are not as healthy as they should be.”

Vinalhaven Island example

To make her point, she said 300 deer were killed on Vinalhaven because the island was overpopulated due to a lack of predation. The slain deer, she said, were covered with ticks and in very poor condition.

“A small example of deer without their predators and this is what happened, and that’s not healthy having that high level of ticks,” Vistein said.

“And again, their capacity to reproduce on such a large number of deer who were really unhealthy creates a massive Lyme disease problem in Maine and that comes back on us.

“So, coyotes saved us in many ways that we don’t even see and, as a biologist, that’s how I see the value of coyote,” she said.

Deer population down

Whatever the reasons, most agreed that deer populations are unacceptably low in Maine and must be restored.

“Deer populations are currently far below their optimum abundance in most parts of Maine,” Lavigne was reported to have said in March in the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s plan for integrated coyote control.

Lavigne is also SAM’s wildlife biologist.

“In northern, eastern and western Maine, deer populations are critically low, existing at densities only one-tenth what they were 30 or 40 years ago.”

Low deer numbers reduce hunter satisfaction and deprive local economies of much-needed revenue. In some northern areas, they are in danger of disappearing entirely, Lavigne said.

This year, the Legislature adopted Lavigne’s and SAM’s plan for biological control of coyotes.

Lavigne’s plan is not to eliminate coyotes, “a feat that would be impossible to accomplish,” he said.

“Rather, we seek to manage for lower autumn and winter coyote populations to levels that improve survival of white-tailed deer.”

Knowing that coyote densities are reduced prior to winter, the strategy is to use a landscape approach to diminish the number and size of coyote packs, reduce the overall number of the species available to prey on deer in the winter, and to eventually reduce the number of older, more experienced coyotes in the population, Lavigne said.

“We intend to foster development of coyote hunting as an industry that not only provides ample hunting opportunity, but also leads to effective coyote control while contributing to Maine’s hunting-based economy,” he said.

Based on rough estimates, Lavigne said 4,000 to 5,000 must be removed annually to accomplish statewide control.

Eastern coyotes can certainly decimate a deer herd in areas where deer are more vulnerable to the aggressive, large predator that hunts them in packs, said David Trahan, SAM’s new executive director.

Legislative fix for coyotes

Before taking SAM’s helm, Trahan of Waldoboro served Maine as the District 20 senator. He said he initiated SAM’s coyote control plan then.

“As a state senator, the governor approached me about bringing the deer herd back,” said Trahan, a self-employed logger of 28 years and an avowed coyote hunter.

“I went out and did some work with SAM at the time and we initiated this new plan and we’re trying to build on that plan.”

Recreational hunters, trappers and paid Animal Damage Control agents will work to accomplish it, with licensed trappers using foot-hold traps and hunters using baiting, calling, hounds and incidental encounters.

“Control efforts will focus on coyote removal at the landscape level to reduce pre-winter coyote density statewide,” the plan states.

Coyote populations in and near important deer wintering areas in the northern half of the state will be targeted, Trahan said.

Coyotes are “a big problem in deer yards with deep snow,” he said. “That’s the real problem.”

Habitat concerns

Vistein, Kantar and John Glowa, president of the Maine Wolf Coalition, say the real problem is habitat.

Vistein said spruce budworm infestations in the 1980s and forest practices have decimated deer wintering areas in northern Maine.

“Because they have no protection from the cold and the heavy snow and the wind, they have great difficulty surviving,” Vistein said.

“So, it’s been known for a long time in Maine since this happened that our forest practices are affecting the few deer that are struggling up there up north,” she said.

“People need to understand how deer operate and not just have the hate and discontent with coyotes, so it’s got to be balanced and I just don’t think we have the information right now to tell us anything differently that they’re the scourge of the universe,” Kantar said.

“The number of deer is what it is,” Glowa said. “Somebody saying that it is a problem has their own take on it.”

“Whether you kill more coyotes or less coyotes, it’s not going to change the number of deer,” he said. “I would argue that there is no problem.”

“Until people stop destroying their habitat, that’s something we can do something about — protecting and preserving wintering areas,” Glowa said. “That is going to make a difference.”

“We can’t do anything about the weather. Maine is at the northernmost limit of the deer herd and northern Maine is becoming less and less suitable for deer.”

“It never was suitable, anyway, until people cut the forest and opened it up and created farmland and allowed deer to come into this habitat,” Glowa said.

SAM’s response to habitat issues

To answer the habitat issue, on Jan. 21, SAM will announce its new deer management plan and a partnership with Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Trahan said.

“A piece of that is going to be coyotes, but the other parts are going to be habitat, deer feeding and a number of different ways in which we think we can bring the deer herd back,” he said.

Lavigne said that if Maine can maintain high mortality in coyote populations, he believes that will reduce the average age and number of older, experienced individuals. It may also lead to lower incidents of deer predation.

“Older, larger, more experienced coyotes become quite adept at killing deer,” he said.

Coyote 2.0

Trahan and Lavigne say Maine’s coyote is a cross between a coyote and a gray wolf.

They’re larger than their western cousins, which enable them to more effectively fell deer-sized prey.

“Having inter-bred with gray wolves when migrating east, our coyotes acquired some wolf-like physical and behavioral characteristics,” Lavigne said.

“When you talk about how they kill a deer, if you look at what a wolf does, it’s very similar,” Trahan said.

“They work in packs. They’ll take an animal down and it’s not a very pleasant sight when they do. ... Certainly, it opens your eyes when you see, not the cruelty, but just the harsh realities of nature.”

Predation primarily by Eastern coyotes and black bears reduced survival of adult deer and young fawns, Lavigne said.

Through the harvesting of forests for wood product production, there’s been a progressive decline in the quality and quantity of wintering habitat since the 1970s, he said.

Severe winters cause greater deer losses due to malnutrition and predation, while the younger-aged forest contains many fewer mature softwoods for deer over winter. This exacerbates winter severity effects, Lavigne said.

To help the deer herd recover in western, eastern and northern Maine, Lavigne recommends implementing a significant and prolonged reduction of coyote predation.

He said Eastern coyote offspring, which are born in April, form the nucleus of coyote packs.

“Like wolves, Eastern coyotes exhibit delayed dispersal, with about half or more of the pups remaining with the pack for most of the winter,” Lavigne said.

“Deer killing efficiency increases with pack size. Hence, reduction in pack size prior to mid-winter may reduce the ability of surviving pack members to kill deer,” he said.

‘Only good coyote is a dead coyote’

That’s what Fern Bosse, and longtime coyote hunters and trappers Jerrold and James Mason of West Paris want to hear.

“The only good coyote is a dead coyote,” Bosse said.

“We did get rid of the wolves, but I don’t see that happening again with coyotes. One thing’s for sure, though, we’ve got coyotes and I’ve been feeding them lead — 165-grain ballistic at 2,800 feet per second,” he said.

Jerrold Mason, 42, and his dad James, 77, are self-employed loggers who live on Curtis Hill Road in Wildlife Management District 12.

No doe permits are issued there. Not that they’ve seen any, but bucks are getting scarce, also. They firmly believe coyotes are the sole culprit.

“If things don’t change soon, there won’t be any bucks, either,” Jerrold Mason said last Sunday.

“Maine went to a bucks-only rule for a couple of years and, since then, the situation’s been ridiculous.”

Like Bosse and Trahan, the Masons said they’ve witnessed coyote predation in packs on deer on their land.

“We’ve had coyotes kill deer right in our front yard,” James Mason said.

“Their population is so tied in with deer that when the deer population goes up, their population goes up, too, and when the deer population goes down, their population follows,” he said.

A registered Maine master guide for 53 years, James Mason recalled one time when a pack of coyotes killed and ate a whole adult deer during the night. He’d left that spot during the daytime and returned the next morning to find evidence of the kill.

“When there’s enough of them around to completely dispose of a grown deer, you’ve got a serious problem,” he said.

Trahan agrees.

“I’ve shot a number of coyotes over the years, especially in the wintertime when I’m harvesting wood,” he said.

“The deer will congregate in the areas where I’m cutting hardwoods to eat the tops. The coyotes will soon arrive, too, and often I have shot coyotes while I was working in the woods to try and give the deer a chance.”

Glowa, however, said IF&W should concentrate on science and stop its war on coyotes.

“The department needs to rein in the public’s attitudes and unsupported hatred of coyotes,” he said.

“I think, certainly, the facts and science don’t support this all-out war against coyotes. They’re not decimating Maine’s deer herd.”

“Predators and deer and moose have coexisted on our planet for hundreds of thousands of years, and there’s no evidence whatsoever this war on coyotes is going to make one bit of difference in the numbers of deer Maine has,” Glowa said.

tkarkos@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Wanda Chadbourne's picture

I think someone needs to see

I think someone needs to see what a coyote can do,like here,which was caught on a game camera:
http://www.deeranddeerhunting.com/jiofds-2fnd983-fnkl2i2-2789ndf98?et_mi...

How about go into Lily Bay State Park in May or June and walk around where the deer yard up and see the devastation we have seen from the coyotes.It was horrifying!!!!!! Bone,hair,legs,bits and pieces spread all around.How about the 2 deer yards behind my house? Devastated by coyotes!Every night you can stand outside and that's all you hear,groups howling & yelping.Cats are even disappearing.In our experience,when the coyotes kill everything around,they move on and then continue on their mission. I am surprised the state hasn't completely cut out deer hunting for at the least 3 years..oh that's right,if they did that,they would have to cut out the warden service,the biologists,etc.....BUT that's what they need to do and then bounty the coyotes..wolves? they are here also,don't let anyone fool you ;-)

Chris Blake's picture

Deer Yards

So you're blaming the coyote for taking advantage of unnatural concentrations of deer in these deer yards, something that would never have to exist in the wild if there were adequate amounts of habitat for them? OK.

Ed Enos's picture

Habitat

Everyone seems to be blaming the habitat disturbance and not coyotes. It that were the case, why is the herd in Southern ME doing the best? Here in Western Maine, you can hear coyotes celebrating a kill almost every night, and our herd is getting smaller too. I believe the hard winters play a role as well, but coyotes impact cannot be ignored.

Chris Blake's picture

Simple

Because in Southern Maine, there's a lot less forests, but also a lot less forestry. When and where there are woods, they're overall less disturbed and have better ground cover.

John Glowa's picture

Travesty

Unfortunately, the bought and sold legislature approved public monies for this boondoggle. They might as well have flushed the money down the toilet. As far as the graph is concerned, official harvest numbers don't begin to reflect the actual kill by humans. The rule of thumb is that for every deer killed legally (and certainly not all of the deer represented on the graph were killed legally), another one is killed illegally. Why hasn't poaching even been mentioned? When is SAM going to stop turning a blind eye to it? The fact that a deer feeding program is even being discussed is a testament to the ignorance of those leading this anti-coyote effort. Creating artificially high concentrations of deer promotes disease and predation. When Chronic Wasting Disease arrives in Maine, deer feeding stations will spread it like wildfire. It is a shame that Maine's wildlife, which belong to everyone, are being so mismanaged due to politics and ignorance.

Daryl DeJoy's picture

Deer and Maine and declining habitat

This entire argument is what we call a philosophy of convenience. It is far too inconvenient to blame forestry practices and the continued overcutting of the woods of Maine for wood pellets, pulp and firewood, the real culprits in the decline of the deer population in Maine. In even the toughest winters, and with large coyote populations, deer populations are not in danger when the deer have proper habitat. Everywhere in the US where there are deer and coyote they survive, live and die in balance with nature. It is only our desire for the quick buck and to find a scapegoat for our problems that lead us to blame the coyote for the lack of deer in Maine. Look at the science. There is NO peer reviewed study nor any evidence other than anecdotal (no evidence at all) that coyotes are doing anything but taking advantage of weakened deer who are already starving and dying. IF anything, they are helping them from an even slower, more painful death from exposure and starvation. There are many states that used to make money from deer hunting. Things change, life changes, and people need to accept that we will not at any time in the near future have a deer population similar to that in the late 70's and early 80's when spruce budworm and the subsequent mass cutting that resulted created a very temporary spike in that population. If this state would stop thinking they needed to sell our wildlife to get money and start using some imagination we would all be better off. As to the anecdotes, we need to start using the science and ignoring the cries of those who only want to gain from ignoring that science. One biologist who works for the Sportsmans Alliance of Maine contradicting the rest does not make what he says the truth. Common sense people. Let nature do what it has done for millions of years, without the "help" of man.

Vicki Schmidt's picture

deer starvation

Odd this edition of the Sun Journal should have an article on the SUCCESS of turkeys in Maine as well as on on the decline of deer. Turkeys also feed in packs and vacuum up acorns, apples, etc. Everything deer use to feed on in the winters. I agree its a combination of factors leading to the massive decline of deer. Turkeys are just forest rats, combine that with coyotes and of course the deer have a hard time finding food and making it through the winter. Get rid of a lot more turkeys and encourage a few less coyotes. . its not rocket science. .

Chris Blake's picture

Tenuous connections

Before the state allows this to go forward with other people's money, or god forbid contributes tax dollars to this, I would please love to hear about concrete proof of coyote predation on a consistent basis.

If these men are hunters and trackers who can find deer, or find coyote, they can find remains, kill sites, and conclusive proof of deer dead because of coyote attacks.

Anecdotal evidence and unsubstantiated tales about how big and tough Eastern coyotes are should not be sufficient evidence to put something like this in action. Some coyote killed a deer in your yard one time? Well that sounds either like a sick deer, or a deer vulnerable because it had been fed there. Either way it smacks of the kind of habitat problems that lead deer to seek food and shelter in unusual places, and not a regular occurrence of coyote attacking deer that just happened to be witnessed in someone's yard.

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