Clark Hollow Ramblings: Vanishing deer and invisible smoke

There has been a fair amount of newsprint lately … some of it mine … that speculated on what seems to some of us untrained naturalists to be a decline in the whitetail deer population. My observations come directly from spending time afield hunting and scouting and observing. Further, I have some very good and trusted friends who also spend a good deal of time outdoors. There is some consensus among us that we are not seeing as many deer this year as in recent years. 

That is just an observation, but one, I think, with a fair amount of credibility. Of course, that observation leads directly to speculation as to the reasons for this decline. It has been suggested that the increasing coyote population is playing a role. Now, I don’t have at my disposal the ability, nor do I have the desire, to gather coyote poop and inspect it to see what the varmint has been eating. Enter the people who do have that ability, namely, the game commission and some respected Virginia institutions of higher learning. 

I am told they did some investigating, found some coyote scat and examined it, and, what do you know, they found evidence that coyotes were eating deer. I think that’s what they were looking for, and, in any event, that is what they found. You and I, when we see something with feathers, with webbed feet, that waddles when it walks, loves the water and makes a quack-quack sound, we would probably call that a duck. Similarly, if we found coyote poop with deer hair in it, we would probably say this critter has been eating deer. But, what do we know?

Leaving no stone (or poop) unturned, our trusty investigators are speculating that maybe the deer that the coyotes are feeding on were already dead when they found it. Maybe it was hit by a car. Maybe it died of natural causes. Or, maybe some hunter shot it and didn’t recover it, or the coyotes are eating the remains of what the hunter left in the field when he field dressed a deer. Add to that their speculation that maybe the declining deer herd is the result of other predators, possibly bobcats and bears. 

Where to start? Friends, there have been bobcats here in Rappahannock County as long as anybody remembers. I am as old as dirt, and they were here when I was a kid, and they are still here. God willing, they will always be here. But there has been no spike in bobcat population. There is no evidence to say the ones that are here have changed their taste for whitetails. I am certain there is some small percentage of deer that are taken by bobcats, but there is no evidence to suggest that number has increased.

We have always had bears, and, yes, their number has increased in recent decades. But, again, there is no evidence that bears have been a significant factor in a declining deer herd. 

What we have seen is a significant increase in the number of coyotes roaming the land. These are large canines that need a fair amount of fuel to keep their population and their territory expanding. Some of my fox hunter friends say the coyotes have just about wiped out the local foxes. I don’t have any personal observations on that issue, but I have no reason to doubt the fox hunting community. 

Now, let me give you a significant number. I am told and I have read that the deer harvest for the hunting season just ended is expected to be down almost 20 percent. If that number is anywhere near correct, and I haven’t seen the final numbers yet, that is a huge decline. The number of deer taken in Virginia has been steadily growing for years. A reduction of 20 percent, if proven to be valid, is a huge drop.

One last observation, and then we’ll change the subject. Much has been made of “hard mast production.” What that means, insofar as the deer population is concerned, is that some years there are lots of acorns and other nuts on the trees that grow them and some years there aren’t so many. That can impact the distance a deer has to roam to feed itself, and that can be a factor in how many deer a hunter will see and how many are harvested. But hard mast production alone can not explain the potential reduction we are seeing in the deer herd. Deer do not live by acorns alone. Yes, deer eat acorns, but deer are primarily browsers. Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls or just Google it if you are into that. Hard mast production is likely to have a greater impact on the squirrel population than on the deer herd. 

I also want those of you who use a wood stove to know that I contacted my friend down the road who sells firewood for a living. I asked him if he would deliver to my house a truckload of that new wood that doesn’t cause smoke when it burns. He told me that everybody has been asking about it. He also said he didn’t have any and doesn’t know when or if he will ever get any. He did say he would put my name high on the list if he ever gets any. 

And that, my friends, is my rant for this week. Stay well, be careful if we get any snow, and stay warm. 

Richard Brady
About Richard Brady 134 Articles

Richard Brady was born and raised within sight of Rappahannock Peak, as was his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather, etc. He graduated from George Mason University and was employed for 35 years with various agencies of the federal government. He retired in 2001, and he and his wife, Linda, live in Flint Hill, Va.