If months are a metaphor for life, June is the symbol of life and renewal. There are contrasts. Lilacs sweeten the breeze. Animals reproduce themselves, and higher life forms exchange wedding vows. But in the woods of Maine, far from the eyes of most of us contemplative creatures, there is another world: a life-and-death struggle in a violent drama that has come to be called “survival of the fittest.”

A few years ago, on the shores of a lake near Baxter Park, wide-eyed campers witnessed June’s other dimension. Two coyotes chased a cow moose and her calf into the campground. Upon seeing the campers, the coyotes gave up the chase. For that day, at least, the calf moose was spared.

During June, this chase scene is commonplace, as large predators seek to fill their bellies with the tender meat of the young, vulnerable newborns. The fawns of whitetail deer are a coveted main course for coyotes and black bears. During the heated and unresolved controversy over whether Maine’s suspended coyote snaring program was humane or worth doing, little was said about fawn mortality, or the impact of coyote predation on Maine’s deer population.

In fact, some state daily newspapers continue to accommodate the anti-trapping activists by publishing their letters to the editor, most of which contain the same, shopworn arguments that keep coming back like black flies in June.

Coyotes kill a disproportionate share of deer, and June is one of their more fruitful killing months. This is an indisputable fact that just doesn’t seem to get much press these days.

Maine’s former state deer biologist, Gerry Lavigne, had these comments, which were published in a White-Tailed Deer Assessment a few years ago:

“Given its food habits, the eastern coyote fills the niche vacated by the eastern timber wolf, at least with regard to predation on white-tailed deer. During early summer, coyotes join a long list of predators which compete for newborn fawns. This list also includes black bears, red fox, bobcats, fisher, and domestic dogs. Although deer fawns also die from causes related to maternal under-nutrition, accidents and illegal kill, it is likely that coyote predation contributes to a higher total mortality rate among fawns today than was evident during the “pre-coyote” era. Prior to the arrival of coyotes in the 1950s, summer loss rate among fawns averaged 30 percent statewide. During the past 20 years, these rates have increased to 45 percent. No other factors (i.e., illegal kill, road kills, inadequate nuts, bear population size, etc.) have changed sufficiently to account for this increase in fawn loss rate. Recent increases in fawn mortality represent a net loss in new recruits to Maine’s deer population.”

And a recent fawn mortality study conducted in Pennsylvania also singles out the coyote as King Predator when it comes to the killing of whitetail deer fawns. The study was undertaken with this objective: “To quantify proportions of whitetailed deer fawns dying from specific causes and to estimate survival rates of fawns.” The study focused on 92 fawns that were captured and monitored by collars with radio telemetry. Here is an excerpt from that study:

“Coyotes (Canis latrans) were implicated in 34 percent of the predator mortalities, and they were responsible for 40 percent of predation deaths in both areas. Bears (Ursus americanus) killed the next highest number of fawns, 22 percent of the total predator deaths.”

Interestingly enough, only one of the 92 studied fawns was taken down by a bobcat.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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