Located on the bleached, white sandy beach of the Gulf of Mexico in the northern Panhandle of Florida is one of the most beautiful resorts in the U.S. called the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. With 2,400 acres of meticulously well-kept grounds littered with loblolly pine and live oak, the Sandestin is recognized as the largest private resort in the country, and from February 26th through the 28th, it provided residence for 325 deer researchers, biologists, and managers from throughout the Southeast attending the 35th annual meeting of the Southeast Deer Study Group.
Hosted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, representatives from 17 states shared their latest findings and concerns relating to the number one big-game animal in North America—the whitetail deer. Hosted by a different state wildlife agency each year, one of the host state’s responsibilities is to come up with a theme for the meeting. This year’s theme was ‘Predators – and whether they are changing the dynamics of managing deer in the Southeast’.
Researcher Michael J. Chamberlain kicked off the meeting by emphasizing the fact that deer have historically been subject to predation from large carnivores such as cougar, black bear, and red wolves. However, land use practices and at times public sentiment has altered these predator communities. More importantly, the rapid expansion of coyotes into the Southeast has changed the predation pressures on whitetails as well as other species.
Coyotes have also hybridized with other canids, and today coyotes inhabiting the Southeast are larger than their western counterparts, exhibiting a social system that is poorly understood. These intruders not only impact whitetails, but other predator species in a variety of habitats, a characteristic Chamberlain referred to as behavior plasticity. In other words, the coyote is an extremely adaptable animal, enabling it to live right alongside of man.
John C. Kilgo of the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station spoke about the impact mushrooming deer populations have had across the Eastern U.S., but also stated that coyotes in some areas have begun to affect deer populations, which is a concern for both managers and sportsmen.
The coyotes’ rapid expansion throughout the Southeast has generated much concern and interest in their control; however Dr. Steve Demarais of Mississippi State University and I presented our thoughts on the wily coyote, alluding to the fact that it would be prudent to investigate the benefits this predator could represent. With deer numbers increasing throughout much of their range and a consistent drop in hunter recruitment, the coyote could possibly represent an important natural population control mechanism in the future.
Although coyotes can thrive on a diversity of food sources, everything from mast to insects, they will kill deer. The much published impact coyotes have on fawn survival leads some individuals to believe that the only good coyote is a dead one. But even when predator control is warranted, suppressing this adaptable animal is not only expensive and time consuming, it is often unsuccessful as there is evidence that reproduction of this species responds somehow to control measures by an increase in progeny.
The traditional antler scoring competition allowed all members of the group an opportunity to score one of Florida’s fine whitetails, while a number of trophy Florida whitetails were uniquely displayed, demonstrating the caliber of deer the sunshine state produces.
As a member of the deer committee (Southeastern section of The Wildlife Society), one of my responsibilities along with five other committee members is to judge student presentations. This year 23 of 37 papers were presented by graduate students, and what stood out most was the fact that they are not only increasing in number, but in quality of their presentations as well. It’s comforting to know that the future of wildlife management is in good hands.
At the closing banquet on Tuesday evening, the top student presentations were recognized. This year’s first place winner was University of Georgia graduate student Bradley S. Cohen, whose research was focused on the sensitivity of whitetail deer to ultraviolet and infrared light. Not only were his findings that deer view the world much differently than humans as they are more sensitive to detecting the blue and green wave length. Cohen’s sophisticated research methods, and more importantly presentation, stood out above the others.
The highlight of the annual meeting is the awarding of the prestigious Deer Management Career Achievement Award. This award is presented to an individual who has contributed significantly to whitetail deer management in the Southeastern U. S. For me, this will be one meeting I will never forget as I was recognized as this year’s recipient, and was privileged to enjoy it with my wife Jan and close friends, former award winners Harry Jacobson and David Samuel.