A recent news story about how eastern coyotes are becoming more wolf-like caught my attention. It was interesting, though not really news, because we’ve known that for over a decade.

But it is a good reminder, particularly as deer season winds down and we head toward what some suggest could be a bear of a winter.

Our (northeastern) coyotes arrived in New York in the 1920s, and in Maine in the 60s and 70s. Originating as western coyotes, they dispersed eastward through Ontario where, to varying degrees, they interbred with eastern timberwolves, the unequivocal evidence of which continues to manifest itself physically and behaviorally.

Using extensive DNA analysis, geneticists were able to segregate contemporary eastern coyotes into three general categories. Most show some DNA markers from eastern Canadian timberwolves, but one includes animals that are commonly referred to as tweed wolves in Canada, but are increasingly and somewhat accurately being called coywolves in Canada and the U.S. Physical analysis of animals from this group, including some from Maine, show they have larger bodies, large skulls and larger jaw musculature – an adaptation for taking larger prey such as deer.

The story also noted behavioral similarities, particularly coyotes hunting in packs like wolves. While that’s also no revelation, it might be less widely known. The fact is coyotes are extremely adaptable. They will hunt whatever prey is most abundant and easily obtainable, changing from year to year and season to season. They also hunt alone or in concert, depending on numerous variables.

In any case, coyotes certainly take their share of deer. In a 1995 report, former Maine deer biologist Gerry Lavigne estimated coyote predation in Maine accounted for nearly 30 percent of annual deer mortality. That amounted to more than 20,000 animals, roughly the same number taken by hunters. Lavigne speculated that deer represented perhaps 50 to 80 percent of a coyote’s diet, possibly even up to 90 percent during the spring fawning season. Since then, the deer population declined while coyotes increased in range and number. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out what that means, though we keep trying.

A more recent U.S. Forest Service study in South Carolina showed coyote predation accounted for between 46 and 84 percent of all deer mortality, and somewhere between 47 and 62 percent of all fawns succumbed to coyote predation. Researchers concluded the deer population within their study area had fallen into a predator pit, where predation exceeds productivity, so the deer herd is unable to recover. Biologists speculated it could take a doe harvest reduction of 50 percent or more just to stabilize the herd.

Meanwhile, the statewide deer population has declined by approximately 30 percent since the mid-1990s, which coincides with the arrival and proliferation of coyotes. And this is in an area that does not have severe winters, and where deer are dispersed relatively evenly across the landscape.

Imagine how devastating coyotes can be in a place where snow piles up, hindering a deer’s ability to escape, and where deer concentrate into relatively small wintering areas. Then consider that coyotes practice something called opportunity killing. They don’t just kill what they need to eat. When prey is readily and easily available, like in a deer yard, they will kill just because they can, leaving a dead deer behind as they move on and kill again.

While we clearly have identified coyote predation as one of the largest sources of deer mortality in Maine, if not the largest, the search for an effective and acceptable remedy is more muddling. Humans have waged war on these extremely adaptable predators for centuries with little to show for it. Extensive efforts largely have failed, and in some cases have increased coyote productivity, while some intensive efforts have shown temporary results in localized areas.

Some question whether we should even manage for one species over another, but the financial impact deer have on Maine’s economy is a more than sufficient response. In the meantime we’re left knowing that whatever we do, we always will have to share our deer with another predator.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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