There was a time when there was no cure in sight for hunters who suffered "cabin fever" from the end of the deer season to the beginning of spring gobbler season.

Now, more hunters than ever are enjoying good health throughout the winter because of the wide-spread and ever-increasing popularity of coyote hunting. For some, hunting coyotes goes beyond sport, and is seen as a way to help protect the state's deer herd from these predators.

Coyote hunting has developed into a sport onto itself, with many hunters purchasing rifles and optics especially designed for predator hunting. It has also led to a surge in predator calls, with the Pennsylvania-based FoxPro Game Call Company of Lewistown a leader in the industry.

According to the most recent deer research conducted by the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, however, the coyote problem is no greater or less in Pennsylvania than in other states. Still, there is plenty of proof that the coyote population has had dramatic growth in the Northeast in recent years.

Duane Diefenbach, adjunct professor of wildlife ecology and leader of the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit housed in the college's School of Forest Resources, headed the study. And he said the results show that coyotes do prey on fawns.

Nationally recognized for his deer research, he has been involved in all the Pennsylvania Game Commission's deer studies since 2000, overseeing a ground-breaking fawn-mortality study completed in 2002. During the last decade he and his students have been monitoring hundreds of deer they captured and fitted with approximately 3,000 radio collars and carefully documenting their movements, behavior and fates.

"It's a cruel world out there for wildlife, but it's no crueler in Pennsylvania than other states, and our data tell us that coyote predation is not an issue in Pennsylvania," 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.

"When we monitored more than 200 radio-collared fawns from 2000 to 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, and the general pattern in Pennsylvania and in other states and provinces is that we have seen slightly higher fawn survival rates in agricultural areas because there is less predation, and in forested habitats we see slightly lower survival rates."

According to Diefenbach, the literature shows that fawn survival for the first year of life in forested landscapes is about 25 percent. In Pennsylvania the rate came in at about 28 percent, and the research also showed that fawns in Pennsylvania agricultural landscapes have a 52-percent survival rate, and deer-hunter harvests show fawn predation is not growing at an alarming rate.

"The fawn component of the hunter harvest typically about 40 percent of antlerless deer killed by hunters has remained largely unchanged for many years," Diefenbach said. "If fewer fawns were surviving because of increased coyote predation, they would not be available to hunters.

"Peoples' natural reaction to hearing and seeing coyotes, and knowing that they are everywhere in Pennsylvania, is to wonder how many fawns they kill. I don't know what we would learn if we conducted another fawn-survival study, especially because of what we already know about deer-coyote ecology."

Meanwhile, the popularity of coyote hunting is clearly on the rise, and that is good news for both the deer and wild turkey that share the woods with this wily predator.