First, pesky poachers were to blame for dwindling Whitetail deer fawn numbers; then sharp-shooting farmers and, finally, Eastern coyotes. Real or imagined, concern over increased deer predation in Northern Tier Pennsylvania has captured the imagination of deer hunters and wildlife lovers.
But Penn State's deer researcher, Duane Diefenbach, says the real answer is none of the above. "It's a cruel world out there for wildlife," explains the wildlife ecologist and leader of the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. "But it's no crueler in Pennsylvania than other states."
Yes, the coyote population has grown dramatically in the Northeast in recent decades. And coyotes do prey on fawns. "But very few adult deer, in our studies, have succumbed to predation from coyotes, bears or anything else," he adds.
WILE E. COYOTE NOT TO BLAME: Penn State studies refute claims that coyotes are taking more young fawns.
"Once a deer reaches about 12 months of age, the only significant mortal dangers it faces are getting hit by a car or being harvested by a hunter. By far, most of the time when a coyote eats venison, it is from a road-killed animal, or from a deer that was wounded by a hunter, but not retrieved."
Fawns often are killed and eaten by coyotes and bears. But Diefenbach says that's always been the case. From data on more than 200 radio-collared fawns, survival rates in Pennsylvania are similar that that of Maine, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa and New Brunswick, Canada. Overall mortality here isn't extraordinary. About 50% make it to six months of age.
In forested landscapes, about 28% survive the first year of life. In agricultural landscapes, they have a 52% survival rate."
"The fawn component of the hunter harvest - typically about 40% of antlerless deer killed by hunters -- has remained largely unchanged for many years. If fewer fawns were surviving because of increased coyote predation, they wouldn't be available to hunters." And he concludes, in-field and computer simulations show no evidence of such a decline.