Bath study investigating coyote impact on deer population
Hot Springs, Va. – Two years ago a study began in Bath and Rockingham counties to see if predators are having a big impact on the decline of the deer population in the area. It started with a question about coyotes impacting the deer population, but at this point researchers are finding that other animals, such as bear and bobcat, are also having an impact.
Researchers are genetically analyzing scat samples to find out which animals are eating deer. Marcella Kelly is working on the study. She’s an Associate Professor in the Fish Wildlife and Conservation Biology Department at Virginia Tech.
“We’re pretty good at identifying the species, with the exception of there’s a lot of confusion in the field between identifying bobcat and coyote samples so those two are commonly misidentified,” says Kelly. “So it’s really important to do the genetic IDs. We are finding remains of deer in all three species, in black bear, coyote and bobcat. But I think that was pretty interesting for us, that we were finding especially deer remains in black bear. We know that bears will eat dear, but I guess we were surprised that that was a prevalent diet item and also the same for bobcats. We’ve got a suite of predators, I guess, that are impacting deer species.”
Another part of this study is research on the movements of coyotes in the area. GPS collars have been placed on coyotes in order to track them.
“We’re finding coyotes have pretty big home ranges and they can make really large movements, but it really varies across the animals,” says Kelly. “Right now we have seven or eight that still have GPS collars on and some of those have been on for over a year now, so that’s great. And they really vary. Some stay in one location and center their activity around that one location, have kind of a smaller type home range. And then others make very large movements, kind of following the ridge lines, up and down those ridges and have really kind of long linear home ranges. And then occasionally they seem make these massive movements, say into West Virginia for a little while, and then come back. Not totally sure what they’re doing. We haven’t really analyzed that in terms of what habitat types the animals are covering, but that’s up and coming for this next year.”
So far over 1,000 scat samples have been analyzed. The analysis not only identifies species, but can even identify individual animals within a species. Kelly says with the genetic data they will be able to estimate the number of coyotes, bobcats and bears in the area and see which of the three predators is having the most impact on deer.
“We’ve done an enormous amount of field work on this project and have lots of volunteers that have helped us collect scat samples,” says Kelly. “It just takes awhile to get all that genetic data analyzed. And then the exciting part will probably be really starting next summer once the field work is sort of finished by the end of next summer. Then we can really crank out some of the analysis and answer some of the questions, like how many coyotes do we think there really are, what is their average home range size, things like that, that we’re really looking forward to. As well as the analysis for the diet study should be complete hopefully by the end of 2013.”
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, The Nature Conservancy and the US Forest Service are helping to support this study. Kelly says a final report will be done in January of next year.