11 Natural Predators of Deer

Deer are an iconic animal of North America, as are many of the predators that hunt them.

However, the number one natural predator of deer is humans, with coyotes being a close second. Wolves, black bears, and mountain lions also top the list as natural predators of deer.

11 Natural Predators of Deer

While deer, especially whitetail and mule deer, have sustainable numbers in North America, they still have many natural predators to contend with.

Humans

As this site is about educating hunters, I’m sure you are aware of the human position as a natural predator of deer. 

However, you may not be aware that hunters harvest an estimated six million deer each year.

While this may seem like a large amount, the deer population has stayed healthy for the most prolonged period ever recorded.

This is because not only are humans the number one natural predator of deer, but we are also conservationists.

There are an estimated 12 million deer hunters in the US alone. This is a lot of predators for deer. 

But as you can see by the statistics, only half that many deer are harvested each year.

Some hunters are not successful, while others purchase a license but don’t fill a tag for numerous reasons.

While some may argue that humans are not “natural” predators of deer, keep in mind that humans have hunted for meat for more than 2 million years[1].

There is also evidence that suggests that humans used weapons for hunting deer 120,000 years ago[2].

This means that humans have been hunting deer since the neanderthal era.

It’s most likely that humans were not the number one predator of deer back then. The advancement of technology and the growth of the human population have pushed us into the number one position we hold today.

Coyotes

Natural Predators of Deer

After humans, coyotes are the biggest threat to deer. There have been countless studies done on the effect coyotes have on the deer population, and nearly all of the studies have shown that coyotes can keep the population relatively low.

However, nearly all of these studies also showed that while coyotes are adept predators of deer, they do not wipe out herds of deer, regardless of what you heard around the campfire.

For the most part, coyotes are deer scavengers, but they turn into elite deer hunters in the spring and winter.

Coyotes will rarely prey on an adult deer when there is no snow on the ground.

During the spring, coyotes usually prey on fawns.

Many studies also show the importance of venison in a coyotes diet. Often venison makes up over 60% of a coyote’s diet. 

The winter months show a higher venison consumption, especially from adult deer.

November through January is when coyotes primarily prey on deer. 

During these months, there is little consumption of other animals and typically a higher consumption of plants.

May through July, see coyotes reduce their killing of adult deer and start consuming fawns.

However, fawns only makeup for approximately 30% of their diet. The rest of their diet is made up of small rodents, rabbits, and plants.

Coyotes still consume venison from adult deer during this time of year, as well as other times outside of winter, but this is usually from scavaging.

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Mountain Lions

Mountain lions are formidable predators of deer and, in fact, consume more venison per predator compared to coyotes.

Studies show that a typical coyotes diet can be as high as 60% venison at its highest. 

For a lion, that number is much higher.

Mountain lions will kill one deer every 6-10 days on average.

They also consume smaller animals, even coyotes, at times, but their main diet is deer, both whitetail and mule deer.

Lions are also known to kill several deer if they have a large territory.

This allows them to have food as they roam and protect their territory. 

A lion can consume a whole deer in as little as 2 days.

The only reason lions are not higher in the list of deer predators is because of their limited range and population.

Wolves

Natural Predators of Deer

Wolves are also top of the list as natural predators of deer. 

And depending on where you live, that might be at the very top of the list or not far down.

A wolf’s diest is strongly influenced by its surroundings. Unlike coyotes, wolves can prey on much larger animals.

That means in Alaska, Yukon, and other northern territories; wolves prey on bison, caribou, and moose, as well as deer.

However, in some places like Wisconsin, wolves have managed to surpass hunters as being the number one predator of deer.

A wolf can eat up to one whole deer per week. Again, this depends on what other options are around. 

In places with limited numbers of other large prey for wolves and high wolf concentration, that number can be on the higher side, meaning a single wolf can consume up to 50 deer in a year.

Bears

While bears aren’t known for affecting the deer population as much as coyotes or wolves, they are more effective at fawn predation than coyotes.

Bears are often overlooked as effective predators of deer.

However, studies show that black bears are more effective at killing fawns[3] than once thought.

Black bears are not known to prey on adult deer. 

This puts them down the list of natural predators for deer. While they can put a dent in the fawn population, the window of opportunity is relatively short.

With most fawns dropping around the same time, predators are overwhelmed. 

This is especially true for bears, who hunt in a different manner to wolves and coyotes.

Bears prefer to make shorter, faster runs at the animals, whereas wolves will run the animal to exhaustion.

Brown bears will also prey on and consume deer fawns but not as many as black bears. Brown bears largely feed on grasses, berries, small animals like ground squirrels, as well as salmon.

They are however effective scavengers and will readily take over a deer kill from other predators, however, they do not prey on deer so often.

Other Predators of Deer

Outside of the five predators mentioned above, deer have other predators that don’t have such a large influence on the herd.

These predators are:

  • Bobcat
  • Lynx
  • Wolverine
  • Alligator
  • Eagle
  • Jaguar

The majority of these predators prey on fawns, but some are known to take adult deer, especially jaguars and alligators.

Jaguars have the potential to be a large predator for deer, but due to their limited numbers in North America, they don’t have the same effect on the deer population as wolves, coyotes, or bears.

Predator Influence on Deer Population

Many studies have been done on the effect predators have on the overall deer population.

However, most studies find that while predators are able to lower the number of a herd, it is very rare for them to wipe out a herd completely.

Most studies show that predators usually affect fawns[4] the most. This is interesting because, during the winter months, a coyote’s diet is mainly of adult deer. 

However, even coyotes will turn their focus to fawns given the opportunity.

Humans have the most potential to damage the deer population but also have the strongest interest in preserving it.

Through managed hunting seasons and reserves, humans keep the deer population healthy. 

However, other natural predators also play their part in managing deer populations. This is on the other end of the spectrum. Usually, when the deer population grows too large in an area, coyotes show up[5] and scale back this number.

Final Thoughts

Deer have many natural predators, with humans, coyotes, and wolves being at the top of the list.

With the right management in both hunting regulations and predator control, deer and their predators can coexist healthily side by side.

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/sep/23/human-hunting-evolution-2million-years
  2. https://www.science.org/content/article/ancient-deer-skeleton-may-reveal-how-neanderthals-hunted-prey
  3. https://www.psu.edu/news/agricultural-sciences/story/penn-state-study-shows-bears-are-major-predators-fawns/
  4. https://www.pgc.pa.gov/Wildlife/WildlifeSpecies/White-tailedDeer/Pages/PredationDeerPopulation.aspx
  5. https://www.fs.usda.gov/features/study-concludes-coyotes-help-manage-deer-population-southeast-us
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