Whitetail fawns are stunning.
With their burnt orange coat and white spots they not only blend with the forest floor but shine as one of nature’s true beauties.
This fawn was hidden on the edge of a briar tangle at a Ducks Unlimited waterfowl preserve in North Dakota. As its mother watched from a distance, I snapped a quick photo and then left so neither mom or baby would feel threatened.
This was in stark contrast to the lifeless fawn I found on the edge of a high line on the southern tip of Newton County, TX.
It had been dead awhile but there was no broken neck or eaten ribcage typical of coyote or bobcat predation. What killed it remains unclear.
A much greater mystery is the huge increase in fawn deaths nation-wide.
According to Kip Adams, wildlife biologist with the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), a significant decline in fawn survival has occurred in the last 15 years.
“Overall, fawn recruitment rates have declined from an average of 0.81 fawns/doe in the U.S. in 2000 to 0.58 fawns/doe in 2015. That’s significant,” he said.
As of 2015, the Northeast U.S. averaged 0.48 fawns/doe, the Southeast averaged 0.50 fawns/doe, and the Midwest averaged 0.82 fawns/doe.
“I believe the main cause is increased predation on fawns,” Adams said.
“Deer herds with high fawn recruitment rates are very resilient to severe weather, disease outbreaks, and over-harvest. This provides a nice buffer in deer management programs. Significantly reduced fawn recruitment rates remove this buffer and make deer herds more vulnerable to the above factors.”
There are more than 30 million whitetails in North America.
This is not an issue where a species is becoming endangered, threatened or even in any kind of major decline. Deer herds are chiefly managed for hunting and it can even be argued that increased predation is a natural response to burgeoning deer herds and should be welcomed.
But there is more.
Penn State biologists are wrapping up a three year study that involves fitting fawns with radio collars.
Research Duane Dieffenbach provided this information on one of Penn State’s study areas.
Five of the fawns captured were found dead with no visible cause (even after necropsy). Some lacked milk in the rumen, while others did not but the real reason why a seemingly healthy dead fawn found its way to the necropsy table is unknown.
This year when the field crew checked on one fawn whose collar was in mortality mode, they found it alive but unable to move. When they checked on the fawn the next day it had died. The necropsy found milk in its stomach but no obvious cause of death. PGC vet, Dr. Justin Brown, collected tissue samples for examination but we do not have a confirmed cause of death at this time.
Bottom line, lots of fawns (about a third of all mortalities) die from causes other than predation
What are these causes? They can run the gamut from pneumonia to screwworms but some are questioning whether the introduction of GMO agriculture has had an impact.
A North American Whitetail article digs deep into the potential impact of GMO crops on whitetails. You can read it here.
The takeout of the article for this writer was anecdotes from Judy Hoy of Montana who does wildlife rehabilitation.
“As a game warden, my husband retrieved many accident-killed big-game animals, primarily white-tailed deer, from roadsides and yards, and I examined the carcasses prior to disposal. I also cared for newborn wild ruminants. Thus, we examined hundreds of white-tailed deer prior to and after 1995.
“We observed that, beginning in spring of 1995 and continuing through 2014, many individuals of white-tailed deer fawns were born with one or more birth defects consistent with mineral deficiencies and thyroid hormone disruption. In 1996, I began documenting the bite, the size of the deer and the size of the male genitalia with measurements and photos. I also found the sex ratio on the white-tailed deer skewed highly in favor of males at around 60M/40F, especially between 1995 and 2002.”
There is much more to the story which I highly recommend reading but it certainly paints an interesting picture since the 1990s there have been millions of acres planted with GMO seeds and their use only continues to increase. The impact of GMOs on rats and mice in laboratories is truly frightening.
Once again whitetail declines are superficial when looked at through the prism of history and the fact that even the states with the lowest whitetail numbers are vastly above what they were 50 years ago.
But there is no question something is different out there.
Something is changing the dynamic of fawn recruitment and it is happening on a large scale.
For now let’s say the fawns in America’s woodlands could be like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Their disappearance could be a signal of something bigger on the horizon.
We have created a continuing dialogue with universities, the QDMA and state agencies to look deeper and will report as we find out.
Fawns are starting to hit the ground in parts of the country right now. Making it past spring has always been a challenge due to the harsh nature of life in the woods but now it seems something or some things are making it downright difficult for Bambi to lose his spots.
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Chester Moore, Jr.