A predator pit is created when deer populations (speaking of Maine’s deer management problem) have been reduced for various reasons and existing key predators, like coyote, bear and bobcat, can drive those numbers even further into an abyss, perhaps prohibiting a regrowth of the herd.

Admitting you got a predator pit might be as difficult as admitting you’re an alcoholic or a habitual drug user. It seems these days wildlife managers aren’t interested in admitting that predators can be a problem. I have written on this blog before that under ideal conditions, Maine pays little attention to the coyote, bear, bobcat or any other predator that might feast on a whitetail deer, adult or fawn. When populations, such as deer, get out of skew, an abundance of predators can and will create a predator pit, something that can never end and that is a very serious condition.

Before we look into what leads to a predator pit, we must first examine the problem that exists where wildlife managers fail to admit predators can be a problem. Dr. Charles Kay, perhaps the top wildlife ecologist in the U.S. today and an Adjunct Assistant Professor and a Senior Research Scientist at Utah State University, wrote in Petersen’s Hunting Magazine, in August 1993, that research indicated that predators limit ungulate (hoofed animals) populations.

Research in Alaska, British Columbia, Yukon, Alberta and other Canadian Provinces indicates that wolves and other predators, more often than not, limit ungulates.

Further, Mark Hebblewhite, University of Montana, College of Forestry and Conservation, in a 10-year study called, “Predator-Prey Management in the National Park Context: Lessons from a Transboundary Wolf, Elk, Moose and Caribou System“, examines how predators, mainly wolves, affect ungulate herds in and near the Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. Hebblewhite warns wildlife mangers of the troubles attempting to manage predators in order to sustain an ungulate population as a food source, i.e. for hunting purposes.

Based on experiences in BNP, I show that wildlife managers face tough choices ahead and must come to terms with the truth that maintaining prewolf ungulate harvest regimes may be a fantasy in postwolf landscapes and, moreover, may be incompatible with ecosystem management.

Hebblewhite refers to “prewolf” and “postwolf” but we can certainly ascertain that coyotes, bears and other large predators can have effects on ungulate populations, especially if allowed to grow in numbers too great and/or other conditions on the ground have greatly reduced deer numbers, i.e. weather, hunting, disease, predation, etc..

George Dovel, Editor of The Outdoorsman, sums up in the Feb-April 2010 Edition, Bulletin Number 38, this same Hebblewhite 10-year study by listing 10 conclusions the study provided.

1. Wolves destroyed 90% of the elk population.
2. Elk slaughter by wolves increased in proportion to the severity of the winters.
3. 60% of the elk that were part-time residents stopped migrating to Banff after wolves arrived.
4. Wolves destroyed 56% of moose populations and nearly eliminated calf recruitment.
5. Wolves decimated woodland caribou, driving numerous herds to extinction.
6. Wolves stole 57% of prey kills by grizzlies.
7. Any attempt to manage ungulates anywhere near pre-wolf numbers is “a fantasy.”
8. Increasing quality habitat for elk in 77.22 square miles caused more – not fewer – elk to be killed by wolves.
9. To begin replenishing ungulate populations, wolf numbers need to be reduced every year by at least 70%. The reduction has to last until the ungulates recover and must reoccur if ungulates decline.
10. Sportsman wolf hunts utilized to control wolf populations are never effective. (emphasis added)

Readers may want to refer back to these 10 conclusions later on as there are many things that have been determined here that can be carried to predator management in Maine’s Predator Pit.

Let’s examine further. There are currently three studies that have taken place or are still taking place across parts of the Southeastern United States, namely in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. Some or all of these studies are part of a four-year study on the effects coyotes have on deer. The results released so far run contrary to many of the old talking points still used today in most wildlife agencies across the U.S.

For example: Two areas were utilized in the study. One area had very limited coyotes. As a matter of fact, researchers removed 23 coyotes and three bobcats. In a second area, no predators were removed. Just prior to the fall hunting season in this region, researchers determined that the fawn to doe ratios varied tremendously. Where limited or no predators lived, a 0.72 ratio was recorded and in the predator zone that ratio was recorded at 0.07.

In a separate study in South Carolina, researchers followed 60 radio-collared fawns within a 300 square mile area. Only 16 fawns survived past nine weeks, with the majority of fawns being killed within the first 6 weeks. The overwhelming majority of fawn deaths came at the hands of coyotes.

DNA sampling showed that all coyotes kill fawns. Some believe, and the story told, that only the alpha males and females do the killing, the pack cleans up.

An Alabama study revealed that fawns comprised about 27% of a coyote’s diet during the peak fawning period. In addition, trappers were sent into this research area and removed most of the predators, resulting in a doubling of the fawn recruitment ratio.

It becomes quite clear from this work that coyotes munch down on fawns in a big way, limiting fawn recruitment. Much of Maine’s focus in on the winter deer yards. We want to know how many deer are being killed by coyotes during the winter months, etc. It now seems our focus needs to be shifted more towards how many fawns are being killed by predators in general during fawning season. So, how important is fawn recruitment to the sustainability of a whitetail deer herd?

Dr. Kay tells us in very simple terms, “For a stable population [ungulates/deer], recruitment must balance adult mortality”. He also points out a very important factor in how herd numbers are affected by predators.

It must be remembered that wolves limit ungulate numbers by reducing recruitment and increasing adult mortality, not by killing off the game.

If we can reach a point in our understanding of deer and predator relationships that coyotes, bears and bobcats do eat fawns, regardless of whether it’s a bad winter or not, perhaps we can move on. I don’t think anyone is disputing the fact that mortality of deer in winter deer yards is exacerbated by heavy snow depths and extreme cold. What’s going on the rest of the year?

If we now move back to what causes a predator pit, now maybe more of what’s going on in Maine makes sense. A predator pit is created when deer populations (speaking of Maine’s deer management problem) have been reduced for various reasons and existing key predators, like coyote, bear and bobcat, can drive those numbers even further into an abyss, perhaps prohibiting a regrowth of the herd.

Some will argue that Maine’s deer population has been shrinking in Northern, Downeast and portions of Western Maine for several years. That may be so but with the onset of two harsh winters in a row, combined with a growing population of black bears, bobcats and coyote, these areas saw a drastic drop in deer numbers. It happened. Let’s learn from it.

A failure to understand how a ballooned up predator population could effect Maine’s deer population, including attempts to rebuild it, may yet to be seen. This brings us to the question as to whether Maine is spiraling into a predator pit.

Both Dr. Charles Kay and George Dovel describe four basic steps that occur concerning predators and prey, with the fourth step resulting in the dreaded predator pit.

Step 1 – Wildlife experts dispute the notion that predators reduce ungulate populations, sometimes deliberately producing smaller numbers than actually exist. While studies have shown repeatedly that predators limit ungulate numbers, denial that they have any effect is the norm, even when wildlife managers are reducing hunting opportunities as a result. However, the general trend with the denial is to continue with the same hunter opportunities and in some cases increasing tag numbers to boost revenue. This results in a reduction of deer populations, setting up for further drastic implications with back-to-back severe winters.

Step 2 – With Step 1 well underway, all too often animal rights and environmentalist groups are still doing their thing, looking for a lawsuit and a good place for it to happen, that would place limits or complete banning of hunting or trapping of predators. In Maine, consider two recent events. The first was a nastily fought battle over black bear trapping. One fallout from that event was that it put fear and reluctance into the hearts of Maine’s wildlife managers as well as some hunting groups and outfitters, that another battle would ensue. This has resulted in a scaling back of hunting and trapping of black bears in hopes of not drawing attention to what they do, that somehow this will make it all go away. The end result? Perhaps the highest number of black bears in Maine, ever.

The second event is the Canada lynx lawsuit, the result of which has put severe limitations on trapping coyotes. End result? A rapidly growing coyote population that needs to be fed.

Step 3 – Step 1 doesn’t go away as do none of the steps in this if nothing is learned. With lawsuits resulting in a growing predator population and officials still denying predators are a problem, ungulate populations are diminishing along with hunting opportunities. At what rate is difficult to determine because of several other factors.

With the denial still in place, officials will rely on excuses for what is happening. The excuse du jour is most commonly that of reduced habitat. Granted reduced habitat has its effects but as we are witness in Maine, there are plenty of places were good habitat and wintering yards exist with no deer in them. In addition to this, in Hebblewhite’s studies, they determined that increasing habitat had virtually no effect on attempts to increase ungulate populations. Please refer to point 8 above in the 10 conclusions from Hebblewhite’s 10-year study.

Increasing quality habitat for elk in 77.22 square miles caused more – not fewer – elk to be killed by wolves.

Step 4 – The proverbial Predator Pit. Maine may be on the verge, if not already there, of being reduced to a predator pit, with little hope of finding a way out. With everything that has happened, from Step 1 through Step 3, there now exists a situation where predators will determine the population of whitetail deer. Maine can replenish all the habitat they want, they can do dances, pray and cross their fingers for 25 years of Al Gore’s global warming and they can end hunting altogether in their predator pit zones and they will not rebuild any deer herd.

The only way to end this disaster is to first admit what the problems are and then take steps to correct it. Dr. Charles Kay describes the Predator Pit this way:

If ungulate populations have been reduced by severe weather, human over-exploitation, or other causes, wolves and other predators can drive ungulate numbers even lower and maintain them at that level. This condition is called a predator pit and there is no field evidence that ungulates can escape from a predator pit even if hunting is banned, unless wolves and other predators are reduced by direct management actions, i.e. predator control.

It is extremely unfortunate that anyone reaches predator pit status. This could have been prevented if properly prepared; meaning a good understanding of what can happen. Perhaps if Maine had not been sitting on a precipice, the result of poor landowner relations to protect habitat, denial of predator problems, caving in to environmentalists and not standing up for science-backed wildlife management and two bad winters, they wouldn’t be facing this dilemma.

Here Maine sits. What will they do? Have managers reached a point where they are willing to admit coyotes and predators in general need to have active not reactive management programs? I can tell you one thing. Unless those who make the wildlife management decisions are ready to recognize this problem and they want to continue to foist blame on everything but the problem, the Predator Pit will live long and live hard.

Tom Remington