Predation by coyotes on white-tailed deer neonates in South Carolina
Coyotes (Canis latrans) are novel predators throughout the southeastern United States and their depredation of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) neonates may explain observed declines in some deer populations in the region, but direct evidence for such a relationship is lacking. Our objective was to quantify neonate survival rates and causes of mortality at the United States Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site (SRS), South Carolina to directly evaluate degree of predation in this deer population. From 2006 to 2009, we radio-monitored 91 neonates captured with the aid of vaginal implant transmitters in pregnant adult females and opportunistic searches. Overall Kaplan–Meier survival rate to 16 weeks of age was 0.230 (95% CI = 0.155–0.328), and it varied little among years. Our best-fitting model estimated survival at 0.220 (95% CI = 0.144–0.320). This model included a quadratic time trend variable (lowest survival rate during the first week of life and increasing to near 1.000 around week 10), and Julian date of birth (survival probability declining as date of birth increased). Predation by coyotes was the most frequent cause of death among the 70 monitored neonates that died, definitively accounting for 37% of all mortalities and potentially accounting for as much as 80% when also including probable coyote predation. Predation by bobcats (Felis rufus) accounted for 7% (definitive) to 9% (including probable bobcat predation) of mortalities. The level of coyote-induced mortality we observed is consistent with the low recruitment rates exhibited in the SRS deer population since establishment of coyotes at the site. If representative of recruitment rates across South Carolina, current harvest levels appear unsustainable. This understanding is consistent with the recent declining trend in the statewide deer population. The effects of coyote predation on recruitment should be considered when setting harvest goals, regardless of whether local deer population size is currently above or below desired levels, because coyotes can substantially reduce fawn recruitment.