Context. Documenting cause-specific mortality and deriving survival estimates for a population are both vital to understanding potential restrictions to population growth. Survival varies among populations of the same species and depends on several factors, including climatic events, density-dependent and density-independent factors, observed predator composition and whether recreational hunting occurs. Therefore, understanding factors affecting adult survival and estimating survival rates at biologically important times will help refine management of these populations.
Aims. We aimed to assess cause-specific mortality, estimate survival rates, and determine at what part of the winter (January to April) most mortalities occurred for female white-tailed deer located in the Northern Great Plains region of the USA.
Methods. We captured 165 adult female white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) located in western North Dakota and north-western South Dakota, USA, during the winters of 2014 and 2015. We fitted individuals with Very High Frequency (VHF) radio-collars and located them 1–3 times per week to monitor survival. We investigated all mortalities to establish proximate cause of death.
Key Results. Survival was lowest during our Hunt time period (S = 0.93), although hunter harvest was not the leading cause of mortality. Predation was the greatest source of mortality, particularly during our Post-hunt time period. Additionally, almost 90% of mortalities occurring during the Post-hunt time period happened during late winter before spring green up.
Conclusions and Implications. Predation was the main source of mortality for adult females in our study, with coyotes (Canis latrans) being the sole predator capable of depredation in our study area. Predation by coyotes may indicate that potential factors, including winter severity and nutritional restrictions, have decreased female body condition, making individuals more susceptible to predation. Although we report relatively high survival, managers should consider the possibility that coyotes may impact adult populations, particularly in regions where other large-sized predators occur, or in regions where coyotes are newly established. Managers should also acknowledge that overwinter density estimates may need to be adjusted during severe winters to account for mortalities that occur after population surveys are conducted.