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Jenkins: A story in the scat
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Two weeks ago, during our weekly field trip, I was walking with my students along a dirt road in Manchester State Forest. There upon the dirt was a hairy strand of something, about the size of a cheap cigar and tapered at both ends. Earlier that day, we examined paw prints in the sand on the same dirt road. The students drew good connections from those tracks to this new observation, correctly calling it coyote scat. Coyotes are funny this way, dropping their scat in obvious places. In addition to waste excretion, they use feces to communicate their presence to other coyotes. What a lovely thought.

As with most of our findings, we took the opportunity to closely investigate the dropping. We peeled off the hair and made guesses as to what type of animal the coyote consumed. Just beneath the hair, a small bone appeared, and then another. This was an unusual surprise. Coincidentally, I had shown these two bones to the students in a lecture several weeks prior. After arranging the bones, as they would be in the body, the students nailed it. These were the hoof bones of a white-tailed deer. You are likely familiar with the hardened, blackened, outer hoof covering, but beneath there are two bones bearing the same shape, and my students found them in the coyote scat.

Two other clues helped put things in perspective. Our deer bones were small, as if from a fawn. Secondly, we found the scat this winter. However, the sample was whitened, as is the case when well aged. So, the pieces of the story show that this past spring or summer, this coyote consumed a white-tailed deer fawn.

Two decades ago, coyote scat was difficult to find because the animal wasn’t in the east. Deer had less to worry about, but times have changed. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources reports, since 2002, deer populations have declined 30 percent. The reduction seems to correlate with the spread of coyotes across South Carolina. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but there are now a number of direct studies suggesting coyotes are part of the issue surrounding the decrease in deer numbers.

While it’s clear coyotes are killing deer, less clear is what we can do about it. Studies show coyote removal to be promising in initial years, but only until coyotes return. Exclusion is expensive. Moreover, killing a coyote results in quick replacement by other coyotes looking for territory.

If we can’t control the coyote, perhaps we can protect deer populations in another way. Game biologists suggest it is time to have limits on our harvest. A recently proposed bill in South Carolina seeks to do just that, putting our state in line with others by limiting the harvest to four males and four females per hunter each season. Unfortunately, proponents of the bill don’t explain how it will help fawns evade coyotes, since it mostly addresses adult deer not at risk of coyote predation.

Theoretically, the bill could help balance sex ratios. For many years and numerous reasons, hunters thought it more prudent to harvest mostly male deer. We have never had a limit on them. However, during breeding season, this can result in females looking for mates they cannot find. This can delay mating and thus the birth of fawns. In such a scenario, fawning stretches throughout summer, instead of occurring in one short window within spring. The later in spring and summer a fawn is born, the less likely it is to survive. Experts aren’t sure why, but it may have to do with the increased dietary demands of growing coyote pups. In any case, sooner is better when it comes to fawning, and this can be better ensured with a balanced sex ratio.

While the scat my students found painted an accurate picture of the past, the future is less clear. Yet based on what we do know, it may be time to incorporate some caution in our deer harvests. The coyote is here to stay. We should do what we can to ensure our hunting heritage will be too.

(Austin Jenkins teaches natural history at the University of South Carolina-Sumter.)