Whitetail Hunting photo

I saw my first fawn of the season last week, a pencil-legged beauty that wandered on to my parent’s driveway. As naive as it was curious, the little whitetail ambled toward the house, eventually stopping 5 feet from the edge of the garage. I was reaching for my camera when Lucky, my golden retriever, heard the fawn and gave chase. I was able to call off the dog, but the fawn was bleating as though Lucky was gnawing on her ham for the entire escape.

She (or he?) probably didn’t feel like it at the time, but that fawn was lucky all it had to deal with was, well, Lucky. While the annual fawn drop is always an exciting time–a period full of promise–in the whitetail world, newborn deer face steep challenges for the next several weeks. My neighbor recently ran over a fawn, for example, as he was collecting the season’s first crop of hay.

But that sort of death is a statistical blip when measured against all the things that kill whitetail fawns. In a 2003 study of fawn mortality, the Pennsylvania Game Commission captured and collared 110 fawns from an agricultural area and 108 from a heavily forested region. Nine weeks after capture, 28 percent of the farmland fawns, and 43 percent of the big-woods deer, were dead. Twenty-six weeks after capture, mortality rates were 42% and 55% respectively. And those numbers closely mirror to an ongoing fawn-mortality study in Wisconsin.

In other words, there’s close to a 50% chance that the fawn I saw wobbling down my folk’s driveway is not going to be alive by the end of November. Predation is the number one factor in fawn deaths (black bears and coyotes top the list, depending on the area, with bobcats taking a few), followed by “natural causes” (usually starvation), vehicle accidents, and finally, hunting.

Research like this is important, especially as predator numbers are generally on the rise across much of the nation. Bear populations are strong in the North, and southern biologists have been dealing with a coyote boom for years. It wasn’t long ago when the general attitude of game managers was to dismiss the impact of predators on deer populations. Today’s biologists have no such luxury and must factor this in when setting quotas for hunting seasons.

Naturally we hunters are affected by fawn mortality, too. In some cases, deer populations can quickly rebound from periodic and especially localized dips. But after years of relatively high antlerless quotas that have trimmed deer herds across much of the country, waiting for a whitetail recovery is going to take more patience than most deer hunters are used to exercising. Were there too many deer on the landscape a decade ago? Almost certainly, in most areas. But now the pendulum has swung the other direction, and it’s going to take awhile to settle into a new “normal.” In the meantime, I’ll be rooting for every fawn I see.