To manage an ecosystem, look at predators & prey

The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife has the delicate job of working toward “the conservation of fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the people of Vermont,” writes Alek Wolfe in The Mercury, the student newspaper at Bellows Free Academy in St Albans, Vermont.

In Vermont, you see, as in much of the country, coyotes help control the white-tailed deer population, but they also pose a threat to livestock on farms. They eat not only fawns but also chickens and even cattle—at least those cows that can’t break through their fence to escape.

As a result, hunting coyotes isn’t even a question: Vermonters can shoot at coyotes 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. And those well-intentioned laws, designed to keep prey species thriving in the delicate ecosystems of Vermont, can also lead to abuse in terms of people killing animals for sport or in some kind of contest or hunting tournament. The Vermont DFW writes:

The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department believes that both predators and prey species are vital components in a healthy ecosystem. We do not believe that the current hunting and trapping seasons impact the population in the long-term, as coyote numbers are much more limited by prey availability than by pressure from hunting or trapping.

In recent years, competitive coyote hunting contests have been held by hunters. The Department does not sponsor, promote, or encourage coyote hunting tournaments. Although these activities follow laws and regulations, we do not believe such short-term hunts will have any measurable impact on regulating coyote populations.

In other words, the department takes no position on hunting coyotes for sport, and in fact, some people point out that other animals, like deer and fish, are hunted for sport as well as for food, so why not coyotes? They especially don’t take a position since the effect on the regulation of coyote populations, and with them, deer populations, will be negligible.

But protests have sprung up in Vermont all the same. For example, a protest organized by the Vermont Coyote Coexistence Coalition drew more than 50 people at the “Wile E Coyote Hunt 2017” in Bristol last month. Only four coyotes were killed, compared to the six domesticated dogs who attended in protest, the Addison County Independent reported.

So there were hunters, there were dogs, there were protesters, but just not that many coyotes. The biggest one killed during the three-day event weighed 42 pounds.

But the hunt gave protesters the ear of the media. “Vermont’s treatment of a vital predator is appalling, unethical and cruel,” the paper quoted Holly Tippett, a VCCC protest organizer and Bristol resident, as saying in a press release. “Since most of the coyotes killed during this contest will be discarded, it is a clear wanton waste issue, which is in direct contradiction to any respectable wildlife management practices.”

According to the most recent research, coyotes do a decent job of helping to keep the white-tailed deer population under control in the Northeast. But deer hunting, including doe harvesting, is still required to manage the white-tailed deer population, even at the highest levels of coyote predation reported.

“The concern is that coyotes may be changing the established population dynamics of white-tailed deer herds through increased predation on fawns,” said Duane Diefenbach, professor of wildlife ecology and leader of the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit based at Penn State, in a press release. “If that’s true, then deer managers need to adjust how they make harvest-management decisions, because manipulating doe harvests is typically how wildlife agencies maintain, increase or decrease deer populations.”

His recent study, published just a few years ago in The Journal of Wildlife Management, suggests that stopping the hunting of female deer could significantly reduce the mortality of deer fawns. The mortality is indeed significant across the East, he said, where only about one in two fawns survives its first three months of life. Predation by coyotes, black bears, and bobcats accounts for most mortality, but even with hunting added to the causes of mortality, white-tailed deer populations survive quite well.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.