The first week of buck season ended with kill totals down.
The DNR is blaming “hot” weather, something I don’t entirely agree with. A few years ago, it was freakishly hot during deer season, and they still managed to kill a lot of deer.
There are three real factors for why the deer kill was off:
- The bad winter and poor mast crop last year were really hard on the deer. The former is less of a factor than the latter, for it is the mast crop and the fat reserves it produces that allow the deer to survive even the most brutal conditions. Many deer just starved to death, and the surviving does either didn’t have their fawns or were only able to raise a single fawn this year. Mature does usually have twins, but they may abort or resorb fetal fawns if conditions are bad.
- Lack of hunter participation. Nationwide, fewer people hunt. And even fewer hunt deer in West Virginia. Not as many people come to hunt the relatively small deer here, and the recession is a definite factor on why hunters have not been out there.
- The good mast crop this year means the deer aren’t traveling to find food sources. Last year, when there were very little nuts on the trees, the deer seemed to be everywhere. That means they were forced out into the open to graze. It surprised me that the deer kill was off last year, but that sounds more like factor 2 coming into play than anything ecological. Deer simply cannot be killed when no one is hunting.
It is very likely that the deer population will recover. Nature operates in booms and busts like this. With fewer deer about, the saplings of various tree species can grow unmolested. That gives the young trees a head start, and with some species, the saplings will have grown so large and healthy that even modest deer predation cannot kill them.
This year’s mast crop is relatively good and with relatively fewer deer foraging on it, the does that should now be pregnant will have plenty of nourishment to develop healthy fawns. Most of the mature does should have twins next spring, and most of yearling does should have their singleton fawns.
And when they are born in May, they will grow from does that don’t have their fat reserves entirely depleted by both winter starvation and pregnancy.
That will give these fawns a good head start.
The deer numbers may not recover that first year, but if conditions remain relatively normal, they will return.
But the deer kill may stay low, simply because of low hunter participation.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped some people from resorting to what can best be called the Rusty Shackleford school of wildlife management.
Rusty Shackleford was the alias of one of the best fictional characters ever created for a TV series.
Now Dale might be a caricature of a certain paranoid sort that often exists in American politics. We often erroneously believe that these characters exist only on the right, but they exist on the left, too. Ever hear of the 9/11 truthers?
Well, these same sorts of sentiments exist even when discussing such mundane matters as deer numbers.
A good follower of the Rusty Shackleford school is the author of the Creston News, which appears in several publications in very rural West Virginia. The deer numbers are down for a very simple reason– “DNR coyotes.” Mr. Engelke writes:
One local fellow who has a game camera at his corn feeder reported that the only critters coming to the feeder were bears and deer tracks were scarce in the Two Runs – Rock Run area. Some feel that the coyotes, who prefer fawns to lambs, thinned the herd just like they have done in the mountain counties. Others wonder if the DNR or some other agency did something to reduce the population (on the sly of course).
I don’t have any official qualifications to speak, but I have read extensively about wildlife management issues. Mr. Engelke does have qualifications to talk about this matter. He has a degree in botany from the University of Wisconsin.
But I wonder where he learned that coyotes could have such a drastic impact upon deer numbers.
Coyotes do take deer, but these depredations are not enough to cause massive population crashes. Coyotes do take fawns, but in this part of the world, they are much more reliant upon small game. Deer evolved with canid predation, and the does instinctively know how to hide their fawns in dense cover to keep dogs and coyotes from killing.
Does are not milquetoasts when it comes to defending their fawns, as poor Miley found out. The summer before last, she was just walking near a spot where a doe had hidden a fawn. The doe was nearby and as soon as she saw the dog coming, she went after her. In the 70′s, my grandparents had a small dog named Carl who got badly beaten up by a doe defending her fawn. Dogs have a lot to fear from does with small fawns. They are very aggressive about defending their offspring.
If I were a coyote and had no access to a veterinarian, I think I’d be a little cautious about preying upon fawns. It’s less risky to hunt rabbits and groundhogs.
I’m not saying that coyotes don’t take deer or have no effect upon their number, but the lack of food and the harsh winter had a much greater impact upon deer numbers than any effect coyote predation could have.
Of course, there is another assumption in Engleke’s theory that must examined. He assumes that the DNR or some other dark agency released coyotes. I have always heard it was the insurance companies. The “rural legend” is that one guy shot a coyote with a tag in its ear that said “Property of State Farm.” The insurance companies supposedly released them– perhaps in concert with the DNR, which also denies the supposed existence of wolves and black panthers in West Virginia for some other dark reason– to thin out the deer herds. Fewer deer mean fewer insurance claims from automobiles hitting them on the roads.
Actually, coyotes got to West Virginia because, in case no one has noticed, coyotes now live throughout the Eastern US and a big chunk of Eastern Canada. They came east in spite of widespread persecution, because that same persecution killed off the wolf. Wolves normally kill coyotes, and with the wolf gone, the coyote could colonize the wolf’s former range in the East.
Secondarily, people were buying coyotes in Western and Midwestern states to release as a game animal. It wasn’t always illegal to do so, and many foxhound enthusiasts would rather their dogs run coyotes. I’m also certain that some coyotes were bred with dogs in captivity to make hybrids to be sold on the pet market. A certain very small percentage of coyotes in West Virginia have dog MtDNA
The Rusty Shacklefords believe that DNR wants to use predation to severely limit deer numbers. But the DNR itself operates in part on license fees. Deer are a major reason why people buy licenses. If the DNR wants the largest deer population it can sustainable have, then why would it introduce a predator to thin the herds?
And if that were its ultimate goal, why would it introduce the coyote, which can survive by hunting groundhogs and rabbits? Wouldn’t it be better to bring back the wolf or the cougar.
It is interesting that Mr. Engleke is now in favor of very high numbers of deer. I remember reading many editions of the Creston News in which he as expressed a concern that deer numbers were too high. And just this August, he was concerned they were eating too many peaches. If the coyotes were killing off the deer, you’d think he’d be happy about it. (Continued in another post– WordPress keeps bunching my text! This is Part II)