Predatory Pursuits

Coyotes, hogs and bears aren’t just an inconvenience — they can ruin the ability for deer hunters to pattern their quarry.

The bow season is under way. You’ve prepared the stand, scouted intensely and labored over the land — all in anticipation of enjoying the outdoors and taking a whitetail.

As time passes, you begin to ponder why no deer have shown up; then suddenly your heart pounds as an unexpected visitor makes its presence known.

It’s a large black bear.

Now you’re faced with a dilemma. Obviously this beast is highly interested in consuming the clover, so what do you do?

Shooting the bruin would be illegal. Yet the ultimate concern is will this bear and other predators spoil your hunting opportunities?

Throughout North America, predators such as black bears and coyotes are making their presence known. In turn, questions arise and extensive research is under way to determine predator impact on deer — particularly regarding fawn recruitment and population densities.

Yet beyond this aspect of deer management, there is another reality facing today’s hunter.

Once these carnivores reach a certain number in a given area, they can cause whitetails’ feeding and bedding routines to become highly unpredictable.

In turn, predators altering a whitetail’s normal routine can make it difficult to pattern ­— and kill — deer.

Nutritional competition

One concern for land managers and hunters is the quality and availability of nutrition.

With time, labor and money invested, it could be problematic if predators establish territory and start consuming the food plots.

When it comes to black bears and coyotes, their diets consist of many of the same foods as whitetails.

Deer by nature tend to move and eat, move and eat. This inborn habit and their digestive process allows them to maintain nutrition while making it more difficult for predators to stalk them.

Although deer learn to adapt and can still manage to maneuver around predators, it becomes a reality that the whitetails’ routine for nutrition and bedding can be dictated by other wildlife.

Predators can dominate quality nutrition — especially when good acorn crops are scattered. When this occurs, whitetails may have to move on and settle for an inferior crop or other food source that is less nutritious.

Black bears strongly prefer to bed within close proximity to feeding areas. Being that whitetails do the same, there are accounts of deer temporarily establishing new bedding locales once bears ravage a particular food source.

Yet when the bruins move on, the deer usually return to their old bedding sites. Even so, the deer are temporarily disrupted and, to some degree, stressed.

Evading predators and stress

Despite bears and other predators, it’s the old coyote that really induces stress on whitetails.

Although the level of stress predators induce on whitetails varies, undoubtedly deer expend energy evading coyotes. In fact, scientific studies have shown that stress can predispose whitetails to disease: Dr. Moen of Cornell University concluded that the heart rates of fawns increased when they heard the howling of wolves.

Stress, in turn, affects whitetails’ metabolism, and this depletes fat reserves.

It can affect antler growth, as well.

Years ago, before coyote populations started to explode in the East, some non-hunted refuges were known for human-habituated female deer birthing fawns in open fields and rearing them without any threat.

However, as coyote predation on fawns increased, most of the habituated mothers quickly learned to better conceal themselves and their newborns. In time, these does instinctively adjusted to where most of the newborns were surviving.

Despite this adaptability, coyotes put these females into high gear as more physical exertion was needed to successfully evade the canines.

Field observations, though not as accurate as scientific procedures to actually weigh and measure deer, clearly showed that the adult females did not carry the same body weight as compared to the past. Even with herd densities and the quality of nutrition taken into account, it was clear that some of this loss of body weight was due to constantly exerting energy to outmaneuver coyotes.

Although deer usually evade with circular patterns, at times coyote pressure scatters a particular herd. In turn the deer are forced to into erratic, unpredictable movements.

Once deer are broken up, then the routes they use are no longer reliable to pattern their moves.

Eventually the herd will regroup. Yet it is this carrousel of coyote chaos that induces stress and alters predictable deer movements.

In one particular non-hunted locale, a few herds avoided open areas for most of the night when coyotes prowl — excluding rutting bucks.

During the late afternoon and at dusk the deer fed; but as night befalls, some of the herds took refuge in the timber. When day broke and the coyotes retreated to secluded dens, the whitetails came out to feed in the open until temperatures forced them back to the woodlands.

This type of pattern clearly shows that these deer moved and fed in avoidance of predators.

So where hunting pressure forces whitetails to stay nocturnal and coyotes start to dictate deer movement, then these two factors may sandwich the herds to very unpredictable patterns and socialization. All in all, stress is increased for the whitetail.

The hunters’ experience

For those afield who question if coyotes can actually hinder hunters from successfully tagging a deer need only listen to the account of Barry Wilson, a devoted and experienced Tennessee bowhunter.

Several years ago, Barry was atop his stand in Pope County, Illinois — an area known for bucks that can easily score in the B&C range.

Barry was using a rattling bag — carefully rattling and stopping, rattling and stopping. He was being careful not to overemphasize the sounds, but hit the bag just enough to attract a rut-crazed buck.

It was a cold, dry morning and within about 10 to 15 minutes, Barry faintly heard movement.

Suddenly two large coyotes appeared on the scene and were undoubtedly trying to pinpoint where the rattling had come from.

After a minute or so, the coyotes moved on. Barry was deerless for the day.

Barry is fully convinced that coyotes can ruin a deer hunt, or at least try a man’s patience. Barry believes from past encounters that these two coyotes instinctively knew that battling bucks would be more vulnerable and easier to stalk.

The canines may have also had their carnivorous tendencies stimulated by encountering wounded, bloody bucks from past ruts.

Barry also bow hunts in Tennessee. Years ago, he and fellow hunting buddies stopped deer hunting in one particular area of the East Tennessee mountains: Black bears residing in a state refuge were becoming so numerous that whitetail sightings were decreasing.

With the diminishing appearances of deer, the odds of harvesting plummeted.

Another hunter who has experienced the wily coyote is A.J. Niette — a veteran and knowledgeable coyote hunter from Alabama. He can attest from years of pursuing these canines that coyotes can ruin a deer hunter’s opportunities — especially when it comes to patterning a buck’s feeding and bedding routine.

Public land, private land, and the management thereof

Each habitat from region to region differs in regard to predator and prey relationships. Areas with light hunting pressure are more inclined to allow predators refuge and this, in turn, could shift whitetail flight behavior to new levels.

This one aspect might benefit the hunter as predators contribute somewhat to population control of deer — primarily with fawn mortalities.

Of course, this depends on the degree of antlerless harvest in the area. If too many females are being taken, then fawns can struggle to recruit into the population once coyotes get a grip.

On the other hand, hunting locales under heavy hunting pressure might be extremely difficult for hunters to harvest deer when predator pressure sets in.

For public lands, the predator outcome will depend solely on the state agency and regulations for harvesting predators, as well as the numbers of hunters pursuing game.

Obviously, the private landowner has much more discretion about what degree to pursue predator control.

Managing for good nutrition and understory cover, like a quality deer management program, and controlling high deer densities will certainly help maintain herd health. This, in turn, works to reduce stress on the deer.

Even so, for some locales the issue of predators dictating where and when whitetails feed and bed can still be a problem.

Patterning predators, as well as gun harvesting and trapping them, can be extremely time consuming and difficult.

In conclusion

Once a crew of canines gets frenzied for whitetails —, especially if they were able to attack an injured, sick deer or scavenge a carcass — they quickly learn to associate food with deer scent.

They may consistently pursue whitetails, particularly when other food sources are lacking.

Though it isn’t always the case, when vegetative food sources or hard mast is bountiful, sometimes there is a break in the action and whitetails periodically get relief from coyote harassment. Nonetheless, there are still those individual canines that routinely pursue deer — especially when temperatures plummet.

Although coyotes will never be eliminated, implementing a predator control program might be a necessity if predators are adversely affecting fawn recruitment as well as frustrating hunters from patterning whitetails.

Ultimately, predator pressure creates another enduring test in the tradition of deer hunting and management.

About Tommy Kirkland 24 Articles
Tommy Kirkland aggressively pursues whitetails with camera and extensive observational work on free-ranging deer. He is a novice turkey hunter; and his articles and photos have been featured in many outdoor publications.

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