They work in teams, pushing their prey into hopeless situations and baiting them into exhaustion. They rip flesh, tear throats, and attack hindquarters, causing shock and loss of blood. The pursuit is marked by speed — they can run as fast as 43 mph — and striking leaps that reach up to 13 feet. But this fight isn't normally a short one. Successful attacks can last as long as 21 hours before this determined predator completes its objective.
It's not quite the domineering takedown often displayed by wolves or larger predators, but coyotes are one of the most opportunistic predators in North America — and they really like venison.
For most deer hunters, this reality hits all too close to home. Though they aren't indigenous to areas east of the Mississippi River, coyotes now inhabit each of the Lower 48 states. Their ever-expanding range and dietary adaptability are the perfect storm for depredation. Most experts agree that the coyote's presence has an ill effect on deer populations nationwide, and most studies back up those claims. With that concrete data in hand, wildlife agencies around the country are taking action.
Many are calling for an all-out war on these mutts. Head over to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources website and you'll find the following message: "Hunters: Help Control Coyotes and Save Our Deer! Coyotes first appeared in SC about 30 years ago and continue to expand greatly in numbers. Coyotes are negatively impacting our official state animal, the whitetail deer, by preying heavily on deer fawns."
A multi-year study in the Savannah River Site in Aiken County, South Carolina, that in some ways sparked this call to action, found that 80 percent of fawn deaths were due to coyote predation. Recent studies in Texas have found that the coyote's diet during June and July consists of 70 percent fawns. And the beat goes on.
But most of these studies have failed to include coyote predation of full-grown deer in their findings. The prevailing idea remains that coyotes prey on the sick, the weak, and the defenseless. There is little solid data to lend credibility to the idea that coyotes can (and will) kill mature whitetails or that we should even be tracking such instances.
Bottom line: We can hypothesize that coyotes primarily affect deer herds by killing fawns, but there are still a lot of holes that need filled in this theory. Do coyotes seek out and kill healthy, mature deer? How do they choose their whitetail prey and why? Should you be worried about that monster buck you've been tracking all year?
Checking the Tape
The more you look, the more it becomes clear that there is little concrete data out there to provide answers to these questions. It's a tricky thing to pin down, just like these mangy bastards. But with the proliferation of trail cams and the ever-present cell phone video, the tides of empirical evidence in this case are turning. YouTube is chock full of clips showing full-grown dogs putting down two- or three-year-old deer with relative ease. Some coyotes go solo, others work in deadly packs, but the deer are always in for a fight.
A video captured by a hunter's trail camera near Princetown, South Carolina, surfaced in October, showing two coyotes taking down an apparently healthy six-point. The violent script plays out much as expected. The two dogs work as a unit; one latches on to the face of the buck and pulls him down while the other snaps at his hindquarters. The 46-second black-and-white grainy clip ends with the bloody buck being forced to the ground.
Another gem posted on YouTube shows a standoff between a mature buck and his able-bodied foe.
The series of photos, taken in December 2011, displays the pure carnal nature of these attacks. Yet again, we see two coyotes teaming up to take down the velvet-horned buck, but this time the camera catches the attack and the aftermath. Photos show the buck's carcass being picked at by vultures only hours after he'd been savaged.
The record of this trophy whitetail's death in particular marks an action point for all hunters. If these coyotes can take down that deer (possibly a 140-class buck), anything is possible. With these videos in hand, we can say for sure that it can happen, but we need to know how prevalent this type of behavior can be.
Talking to the Experts
Al Morris isn't a scientist, wildlife biologist, or DNR officer; he's a bona fide coyote killer. Morris, the host of Outdoor Channel's Furtakers, has long been known as one of the industry's top predator hunters. He's a three-time World Coyote Calling Champion, part of FoxPro's staff, and former ranch manager at the famed Three Forks Ranch in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. This guy lives to shoot coyotes.
"In all my years of hunting, I've seen it three times," said Morris. "I mean, it's just not something you see much. Coyotes mostly hunt at night, and, of course, we're not out there hunting all the time. But the times I have seen coyotes attacking deer, it's been both young ones and adults."
Morris went on to describe the encounters in length. Two adult coyotes, one male and one female, pushing a doe and her fawn back and forth through a thick stretch of timber, playing cat-and-mouse with both deer. "They would try to split the doe and the fawn and run each of them down," Morris said, when describing a particular duo at Three Forks.
"It was obvious that one would chase the mother back to the other coyote that was waiting. You could tell that these coyotes had been successful at it and knew exactly what they were doing. They had a program, and they were putting it into play."
So what happened when they finally caught up to the full-grown doe? "Once they committed to taking the doe down, the big male [coyote] grabbed the face of the deer and just pulled her down," he said. "He just grabbed on right above the nasal cavity and didn't let go. The female coyote was inflicting as much damage to the ass end of the deer as it could during the entire fight."
Having witnessed the brutality firsthand — he once watched 16 dogs pull down an injured elk — Morris was adamant about the capabilities of a pack of determined coyotes. Just like others that have seen these predators in action, there is a level of shock produced by the pure viciousness of the attacks.
"Coyotes are absolutely taking down full-grown deer," he said. "Every coyote is good for a couple fawns and a mature deer every year, in my opinion. And that's a low estimate."
That's a sobering number to analyze. As this adaptable predator expands into almost every area (they are found in deserts, swamps, tundra, grasslands, brush, and dense forests, from below sea level to high mountains) and refines its scavenger diet, the possibilities for deer kills seem endless.
"When coyotes commit to running that deer down, it's pretty much a done deal," Morris said. "They don't decide between a fawn and full-grown buck right away; they use real-time data to pick their victims."
As coyotes learn more about their new favorite meals and become successful in their pursuits, it's likely we'll see further evidence of mature deer getting killed. It's an easy equation to solve. We know that they can do it. We know that they will do it. And we know they aren't going anywhere.