According to the most recent study by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, predation on deer fawns by the increasing population of Eastern coyotes is not having the adverse effect on the reduced whitetail deer population in some areas of Pennsylvania as was thought – and some hunters continue to believe.
Still, the popularity of hunting coyotes – especially during the winter months – is not just a cure for cabin fever, but helps control the state's second-largest predator. With the weight of the average male coyote between 25-35 pounds, the only larger predator in Penn's Woods is the black bear.
According to Duane Diefenbach, adjunct professor of wildlife ecology and leader of the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit of Penn State's School of Forest Resources, the coyote population has grown dramatically in the Northeast in recent decades.
He also said that everyone agrees that coyotes do prey on fawns, but study data has revealed that coyote predation is not an issue in Pennsylvania.
Diefenbach should know, as he is nationally recognized for his deer research and has been involved in all the Pennsylvania Game Commission's deer studies since 2000, overseeing a ground-breaking fawn-mortality study completed in 2002.
For the last decade he and his students have been monitoring hundreds of deer they captured and fitted with radio collars, carefully documenting the animals' movements, behavior and fates.
"It's a cruel world out there for wildlife, but it's no crueler in Pennsylvania than other states,"
Diefenbach said. "Significantly, very, very few adult deer in our studies have succumbed
to predation from coyotes, bears or anything else.
"We now know that in this state, 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. We know fawns often are killed and eaten by coyotes and bears, but that has always been the case.
"When we monitored more than 200 radio-collared fawns from 2000-2002, the survival rates of fawns in Pennsylvania were similar to what was previously found in Maine, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa and New Brunswick, Canada. Our research has shown that overall mortality here is not extraordinary."
Diefenbach said that approximately 50 percent of fawns make it to six months of age, and that fawn survival for the first year of life in forested landscapes is approximately 25 percent.
Some of encouraged the PGC to implement a study of fawn predation by coyotes, but he believes such a study is not necessary.
"In Pennsylvania and in other states and provinces, the general pattern we have seen is slightly higher fawn survival rates in agricultural areas because there is less predation, and in forested habitats we see slightly lower survival rates," Diefenbach said. "Our work showed that Pennsylvania came in at about 28 percent, and our research also showed that fawns in Pennsylvania agricultural landscapes have a 52 percent survival rate.
"I know this may be an unpopular view, but it is not readily apparent to me how another study on fawn mortality will help us better manage deer. Our 2000-to-2002 fawn study showed that fawn-predation rates were normal here, and I don't have any evidence that anything has changed since then, such as changes in hunter-success rates in harvesting deer to suggest that coyote predation is increasing."
Still, Diefenbach understands the emotional reaction of hunters and wildlife lovers to fawns being killed and eaten by predators such as coyotes. He said that continuing deer research conducted by his unit at Penn State is examining fawn numbers and survival.
Regardless, for many Pennsylvanians the pursuit of coyotes has become a legitimate hunting season. Predator hunting in general and coyote hunting in particular is so popular that participants crisscross the state traveling to organized hunts, many of which offer major cash prizes in an effort to attract entrants.
Ironically, many entrants spend nearly as much, or more, than the prize money offered on travel, food and lodging. Most participants say what coyote hunts really do is provide hunters from across the state an opportunity to socialize, debate any and all matters relating to game and fish laws and even watch some football.