By Larry Woody, Outdoors Writer

As Tennessee’s coyote population grows, so does the debate on what impact it will have on the state’s future deer population.

Nobody can dispute that coyotes kill deer. The only question is, how many?

A story in the current issue of American Hunter Magazine presents some grim statistics: a survey conducted in South Carolina found that coyotes killed at least 65 percent of all fawns born in the study area.

That was the confirmed percent. The actual number killed might have been as high as 85 percent, since the cause of death for some of the fawns could not be determined. In some cases coyotes fed on a dead fawn, but it could not be verified that they killed it.

Submitted Lebanon’s Roy Denney killed this coyote during deer season.

Lebanon’s Roy Denney killed this coyote during deer season.

While the numbers of the South Carolina study may seem high, surveys in other parts of the Southeast have concluded that coyotes kill at least 50 percent of all fawns.

Most of the predation occurs on fawns less than three months old. As they become older they are better able to avoid predators.

The studies found that coyotes don’t take much of a toll on mature deer. However, if 50 percent of the fawn crop is decimated annually, that obviously will impact the future deer population.

Compounding concerns is the fact that the coyote population is rapidly expanding across the Southeast. Thirty years ago, few Tennesseans had ever seen a coyote; today they are common sights everywhere, including urban centers and residential areas.

Once they move in, they are usually there to stay. The only effective way to remove coyotes is to shoot them, and that’s not feasible – or legal – in most residential areas.

Catching coyotes in “humane” live-traps is almost impossible because the animals are too crafty. They can be caught in leg-hold traps, but setting such traps in residential communities where pets roam is risky, and can lead to a lawsuit if a pet is injured.

In rural areas hunters kill a number of coyotes during deer season, and predator hunting is growing in popularity, but not enough coyotes are taken to make a serious dent in the population.

Coyotes are so prolific that biologists say 75 percent of them have to be removed from an area in order to decrease the population for over a year. Females breed when a year old and produce litters of 5-7 pups – and sometimes as many as nine.

They can adapt to any environment, and have no natural enemies other than man.

In addition to the growing coyote concern is an equally expanding problem with free-roaming dogs, especially in sprawling residential areas that encroach on deer habitat. Like coyotes, domestic dogs take a toll on newborn fawns.

Unlike coyotes, which are driven by hunger, well-fed domestic dogs seldom feed on the deer they chase and kill. They chase deer by instinct, responding to their ingrained wolf genes. The owners of free-roaming dogs, not the dogs themselves, are at fault.

As for the coyote menace, so far wildlife officials don’t seem overly concerned. They note that the state’s deer population has remained fairly stable for the past decade, despite the large increase in coyotes during that period.

But if the current coyote population is killing 50 percent of newborn deer, what happens as the coyote population doubles? Then doubles again?

It could be a coyote catastrophe in the making.