The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources is going on five years into an extensive study on fawn mortality being conducted on the Savannah River Site in Aiken and Barnwell counties.
The deeper DNR officials get into the study – named An Assessment of Factors Limiting Fawn Survival – the more it becomes evident the presence of coyotes is having a significant impact on South Carolina’s declining deer population.
DNR estimates the state’s deer population is at 725,000, a 25 percent decrease over the last 10 years after the population peaked in the mid to late 1990’s at about 1 million deer.
While other factors such as a prevalence of mature pine stands have contributed to the downturn, the study has revealed some sobering numbers regarding the role coyotes play in fawn mortality.
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Data from the study indicates approximately 70 percent of all fawns are dying by the age of 10 weeks with coyotes being responsible for approximately 80 percent of these mortalities.
Coyotes likely first appeared in South Carolina in the late 1970s and have since spread to where they are prevalent in all 46 counties. The non-native opportunistic predators kill fawns from birth until they are about 10 weeks old, when they become too big and fast for coyotes to handle.
“Based on the results, we’re obviously losing a lot more fawns through all causes and more than we could have ever envisioned to coyote predation,” said Charles Ruth, DNR’s Deer and Turkey Program Coordinator. “I caution people not to take the exact results from this one study and apply them everywhere in the state. It’s probably not going on at the same level everywhere.
“But the important message is since we have coyotes everywhere [in the state], [the fawn predation] is going on at some level everywhere. It represents a change from the past. We’re dealing with something different. We’ve got a new player in deer management.”
Historically, Ruth says that 1.5 fawns per doe have survived in the state to enter the fall population. The ratio has been well below that during the study on Savannah River Site.
“What we’re seeing in this study, is .3 fawns per doe,” Ruth said. “It’s now taking three does to get one fawn into the fall population.”
South Carolina is known to have the most liberal deer harvest laws in the contiguous 48 states, with the majority of the state (four of the six game zones) having no daily or seasonal limits on antlered bucks. Zones 1 and 2 in the northwest piedmont and upstate have a limit of five antlered deer each hunting season.
“Every one of the other 48 states has some limit on bucks per season, usually between 1 and 3,” Ruth said. “We’re kind of out in left field with respect to this issue compared to all other states. There are bag or creel limits on all game animals or fish [in South Carolina] except on our most valuable animal, which is buck deer. You look at hunting in South Carolina, the big ticket is deer hunting that drives these local economies. [The hunters are] thinking about getting a buck.”
Considering the low rate of fawn survival in the SRS study thanks in large part to the emergence of coyotes and the Palmetto State’s liberal hunting laws on deer, it is obvious to Ruth changes need to be made.
“You can see if you don’t change your harvest strategy it’s not going to continue to work,” Ruth said. “We can no longer continue to kill deer like we once were. Our deer population is like someone managing their money. At one time we had a good interest rate, allowed us to grow our deer population and that allowed us to kill a lot of deer.
“Now the return on our investment, the deer population, is much lower. Anybody with good sense would change their deer killing habits.”
Of course, South Carolina is one of few states in which the state legislature must propose and then approve legislation to change game and fish laws. Laws in the huge majority of states are set by a state natural resources board.
Prior to the last two legislative sessions (2011 and 2012), the DNR governing board has made numerous recommendations related to deer harvest, but the recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.
Before the 2012 legislative session, the board recommended a statewide limit of five bucks per hunter per year with no more than a total of three bucks per hunter in Game Zones 1 and 2 combined. The board also stated it supports a mandatory deer tagging program whereby all harvested deer (bucks and does) must be tagged with tags provided by the department.
“Our board is committed to the recommendations we have made and they will continue to be on the table but we’ve got to get the general assembly to give it some attention,” said Ruth.