The bounty was recently approved by Cherokee Tribal Council and goes into effect this month. The campaign aims to reduce the number of coyotes, which are widely blamed throughout the mountains for killing chickens and picking off small house pets.
But the growing coyote population poses a unique threat in Cherokee — an expensive herd of trophy white-tailed deer. The special breed of deer was imported from Ohio to help establish a prized hunting population on tribal game lands. But coyotes are suspected of preying on the fawns.
For Robert Blankenship, the Fisheries and Wildlife Program manager, the bounty program will be a simple, and hopefully effective, way of diminishing what he see as a pest species in the area.
“On the reservation, coyotes are thriving right now and becoming a nuisance,” Blankenship said. “I know we are not going to get rid of them, but we can thin them out.”
Although there are no limits on killing coyotes in North Carolina — hunters can shoot as many they want and at any time of year, including night hunting and the use of electronic game calls — the bounty should act as an extra incentive for hunters to go after the canine predators.
Blankenship estimates a skilled hunter, perhaps with the use of electronic calls and decoys to lure the coyote in, could shoot up to a dozen in a weekend — picking up an extra $300 in cash. Traps are prohibited because they may unintentionally harm or kill a species other than coyotes.
Blankenship said he already budgeted about $2,500 to pay hunters — the equivalent of 100 coyotes.
If the program is successful though, he may divert more funds for the bounty. The tribe is playing it by ear for the moment. Blankenship said if the bounty proves ineffective or hunters find a way to take advantage of the bounty system, he may discontinue it.
One problem, of course, is knowing whether tribal members indeed shot the coyotes on tribal land. Or whether a non-tribal member shot the coyotes and brought them to a Cherokee person to turn in for the bounty.
But if successful, the bounty will be a targeted investment. Two years ago, the tribe reintroduced white tail onto Cherokee. But, these were no ordinary whitetail deer; they are bred to weigh more than 200 pounds — dwarfing many of the native mountain deer.
But their price tag reflects their genetics. The tribe invested about $100,000 in the program, purchasing about 100 deer in Ohio and transporting them by horse trailer to Cherokee.
The Fisheries and Wildlife Program then invested time and energy in developing habitat and food plots for the deer — forage sites with plants like clover, wheat grass and chicory for the animals to munch on.
Blankenship wants to bring in 50 more deer this year and hopefully in the next three years have a herd established to a level that could sustain a bow hunting season.
Except, he worries about the impact coyotes may have on the fledgling herd.
“Basically, we started this bounty on coyotes to help protect the whitetail deer we introduced,” Blankenship said. “We want to try to increase the fawn survival rate mainly to make sure they are here for our future generations.”
In several spots on tribal hunting lands, the Fisheries and Wildlife Program installed cameras to monitor some of the rehabilitated food plots. The cameras captured footage of deer, elk and other animals frequenting the feeding areas. But, the cameras also taped packs of coyotes prowling the feeding areas of the prey species.
And when it comes to a coyotes versus deer conundrum, for Blankenship, it is a no-brainer. Deer are a sacred animal, part of the Cherokee survival and lifestyle for more than 10,000 years, he said. Conversely, coyotes are seen as a non-native newcomer — and at odds with deer.
Some biologists differ on whether coyotes belong in the ecosystem here. Coyotes migrated to Western North Carolina to fill the void left by wolves and mountain lions — which once played the role of top predators in the food chain. While coyotes migrated here by natural process, many wildlife experts — including the North Carolina Wildlife Commission — deem them non-native and would be perfectly happy to see them eradicated.
But it remains to be seen whether the bounty will have a significant impact on the wily coyotes. The reason the Cherokee — and other places as well — have considered implementing a bounty on coyotes may be the very reason one will not work: they’re prolific.
Coyotes first showed up in the region around 30 to 40 years ago, according to N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Biologist Mike Carraway. Some coyotes were also introduced illegally into the state for hunting purposes on game reserves.
Now, coyotes can be found in all North Carolina counties.
Their ability to eat everything from fruits, vegetables and insects to deer, songbirds and small game like squirrels and mice makes them highly adaptable to most habitats. They also can eat most anything in a trashcan.
Coyotes also have litters of up to eight pups per season and generally don’t have any predators.
“Coyotes are one of the most adaptable species anywhere,” Carraway said. “And they have moved here and made themselves at home.”
One challenge with bounties is that new coyotes will simply move in to take the place of those that are shot. But in Cherokee’s case, if the goal is merely to hold them at bay while the white-tail deer population takes root, it could make sense.
No estimates exist as to how many coyotes populate North Carolina, or even the Cherokee, landscape.
Yet, even with the incentive of $25 per carcass, Carraway was unsure about how effective a bounty may be in the long term.
“Bounties and hunting might reduce local populations but will not have a huge impact in the long term,” he said. “Coyotes are pretty much here to stay, and there’s not much we can do about that.”