June 22, 2022
Those who don't have their heads under rocks can see how impactful predation is on whitetails. Deer numbers are declining rapidly, especially in key areas of the East. According to recent research, the issue might be more dire than some are willing to accept.
"This research began, in part, because of deer hunters," says Adam C. Edge, an associate wildlife biologist and Ph.D. candidate with the Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources at the University of Georgia. "Steep declines in both deer harvest and hunter numbers on national forests in the Southern Appalachian region send up a red flag to wildlife agencies whose mission is to provide quality recreational opportunity. A survey of North Georgia public land hunters revealed that hunters were not satisfied with their hunting experience due to the lack of even seeing deer while in the woods."
Hunters in this area, and in others, are sounding the alarm. Whitetail numbers aren’t nearly what they once were, and it’s time to do something about it. This issue isn’t supported merely by public alarm, though.
"Our research backs up their claim, so we know there is an issue," Edge says. "Regarding an impact to deer hunters, I think it is important to emphasize that the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR) is concerned with the situation and is looking at all possible avenues to restore hunt quality in the mountains of North Georgia."
The Big Problem(s)
One of the primary concerns is how predators are impacting fawn recruitment rates, which directly impact the future. One example—of many places—where fawn recruitment rates are dropping to dangerous lows includes northern Georgia. Too few fawns are surviving to adulthood.
"Only 16 percent of fawns survived past 12 weeks of age in our study," Edge says. "Predation accounted for 81 percent of all fawn mortalities, primarily by coyotes and secondarily by black bears. Bobcats took a few fawns as well."
A wide-scale degradation of wildlife habitat is also playing a major role. Simply, whitetails don’t have adequate early successional cover to hide and protect fawns. This lack of habitat diversity—also referred to as edge cover—is making it hard to evade predators, which negatively impacts fawn survival.
"Young fawns rely on their camouflage to avoid predators, as they are not very mobile," Edge says. "If fawns are just lying in the open with no undergrowth in the area to mask their presence, a predator has an easy meal. Increasing numbers of coyotes and black bears, in addition to poor habitat structure, are likely working in sync, creating a perfect-storm scenario to the detriment of fawn survival in the southern Appalachians."
The good news is that, while the outlook might seem dim, there are things that can be done to improve the situation. While there is no magical solution, there are both short- and long-term things hunters and wildlife managers must implement.
Short-term fixes can minimize the impacts until long-term solutions tackle the root of the issue. Unfortunately, one of these is restricting (decreasing) harvest totals.
"Restricting antlerless harvest, in most cases, is a very effective strategy to use when managers suspect deer numbers are falling below their goals," Edge says. "More reproductive females on the landscape mean more fawns are being produced. This strategy can overcome issues of fawn predation, as most eastern deer populations are highly productive. However, our research shows that in special circumstances, where fawn mortality due to predation is high and habitat is of poor-to-moderate quality, like the southern Appalachians, antlerless harvest restriction is not enough to recover populations by itself."
Interestingly, according to Edge, as of 2020, public-land antlerless harvest has been completely restricted in northern Georgia due to population decline. This includes national forests and wildlife management areas.
"While this is a helpful regulation to assist population recovery, our study still projects deer numbers to decrease on national forest lands by an average of 3.5 percent annually," Edge says. "Therefore, additional management efforts need to take place to increase the odds of fawns surviving to adulthood."
Just as prey species should be managed, so should predators. In some places, agencies and policymakers make this easier. In other places, they don’t. Regardless, it’s vital to an ecosystem to manage it from the top down.
"Predator populations, including coyotes, bears and bobcats, should be managed just as we manage game species like deer, turkey and waterfowl," says Kip Adams, chief conservation officer for the National Deer Association (NDA). "All wildlife species should be managed for healthy, sustainable populations that are neither below nor above what the environment can sustain."
While some land managers attempt to use hunting as an effective tool to manage predator populations, it isn’t one. Instead, they should implement a well-thought-out trapping plan. This is the only effective way to manage predators.
"Research indicates that trapping prior to the fawning season can increase fawn-recruitment rates," says South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Big Game Program Coordinator Charles Ruth. "During the first year of removal, survival rate (0.513) was more than twice that of the pre-treatment level (0.228). During the second year of removal, survival rate (0.202) was nearly identical to the pre-treatment level. And, during the third year of removal, survival rate (0.431) was nearly twice that of the pre-treatment level."
The long-term solution is multi-pronged, but the foremost aspect is habitat management. We must start managing habitat for a mixture of young and old growth, rather than the latter alone. However, the problem is that many of our public lands are in the hands of managers who are unwilling, or unable due to political pressure, to manage forest habitats. Instead, these vast swaths of timber go unmanaged and mature beyond what deer need to survive, which is early successional habitat.
"The decline in active forest management, such as sustainable timber harvest and prescribed fire, is a recent trend across many of our national forests," Edge says. "Extensive environmental regulations, originally put in place for good reason, now counteract attempts by the U.S. Forest Service to implement forest management plans as legal battles with stakeholder groups stall the process."
Unfortunately, due to these politics and outdated, damaging policies, it’s hard for wildlife managers to do what they need to. The result is large acreages of public lands, especially in national forests, with overly mature timber that hurts wildlife rather than helps it.
"When full canopy closure blocks sunlight from reaching the ground, understory vegetation struggles to grow," Edge says. "This can impact the abundance of plants important for deer growth and reproduction, while also limiting protective cover. A stagnant forest with little understory makes for great hiking but is not so great for wildlife habitat."
According to Edge, the U.S. Forest Service is required to submit their habitat management plans for public input. He says the received feedback can either help or hinder those plans. Because of this, it’s crucial for hunters—who are primary stakeholders and have valid opinions—to voice their concerns.
"Work with your state and federal conservation agencies to promote habitat improvement projects on our national forests," Edge says. "Become constructively involved in public meetings and share your thoughts. Managing healthy forests is essential for the wildlife we enjoy, especially the whitetail deer."